If you visualize the modern death metal genre as a knightly tournament with splendid banners adorning the tents of the contestants on an ancient Briton field, you can’t escape the prominence of the progressive camp espoused by Necrophagist and the obscure evil camp belonging to hairy South Americans and occult woodland Finns. Then there are the loved and the hated “brutals”. The unfortunate Morgue Supplier goes all the way to the leaden territory of mechanized grindcore, brutal blastbeat and convulsive gore that is best epitomized by Cryptopsy’s and Cannibal Corpse’s groundbreaking albums Blasphemy Made Flesh and The Bleeding (or your favorite other pick from that mostly dubious discography). The speed is astounding, the songs careen through slashes of riffs like the beak of a vulture on the prowl, injecting pinch harmonics into mono chord chug while vocals are the dual growl-and-shriek statement we have heard enough times in this beaten substyle. A couple of minor gems arise though. The cover version of Metallica’s “Fight Fire By Fire” is an entertaining lecture on the genealogy of early speed metal and how it almost by itself mutates to something close to Possessed or Sepultura if played with intensity, distortion and malevolent speeds. On the side, the title track Constant Negative has a smudged enough texture to operate as a chasm of interlocking layers similar to Gorguts’ fusionesque work on the mighty Obscura. Perhaps a hint where brutal death metal might develop if given enough care and attention? I personally could do without the mosh parts, but those who were disappointed by the wimping out of Cryptopsy should perhaps check this release out.
Hellfires were set loose in Helsinki, Finland last weekend by a horde of black metal maniacs from all over the Earth. Profanation, an intangible feeling of myth, alignment of spirits, pervaded the atmosphere. Let me remind you that while the gig situation concerning underground black and death metal in Finland is rich and fertile, every so-called cult band appearing on stage is no longer going to change anyone’s life to something more mysterious and powerful. Maybe the younger audience sees the matter differently, but I believe they are becoming jaded also. This weekend was something different however. The main event was the 2-day Black Flames of Blasphemy fest, on 23rd and 24th, the Friday night featuring Taake and Horna, among others, but I wasn’t attending, on one hand because of a lack of interest regarding the bands, on the other because I could use one spare night between the “pre-party” on 22th (aptly called “Unholy Night to Remember”) and the Saturday explosion featuring bands of the caliber of Blasphemy and Revenge from Canada.
The dark side of Finland
So, it all started on a rainy and windy Thursday night, in a small Helsinki pub called Darkside which I had only visited once before, when it was empty. No-one was expecting a large crowd because normal people would have jobs and studies to attend to, but the place was crowded and intense. Demonos of Barathrum, the drunken bastard, was shouting at the doorman and people were consuming beer like it was the eve of ragnarók. In that one room of a few hundred cubic meters had been compressed all the dreams and neuroses of Finnish black metal since its very beginning. Even Pete Helmkamp came around to see for himself what the fuck was going on. Ofdoom, a Blasphemy clone from Hamina whose members are barely 18 years old, played a reasonably aggressive set of uncannily familiar sounding songs. I am thankful that at least the cover song choice was “Christ’s Death” by Sarcofago instead of something from the war metal scene. Many of the old school maniacs I met applauded the energy and sincerity these young guys brought to the evening. However, I was more thrilled by the Goatmoon set that saw the audience become a rioting mass of fists and headbanging. The garage punks of Finnish black metal, Goatmoon unleashed a set of familiar songs from their albums mostly resembling a triumphantly melodic cross of Dimmu Borgir demos and Absurd, not to mention an enormously provocative cover from Finnish RAC band Mistreat.
But the real reason why everybody was there that night, the crux of all the anticipation and nervous violence was the return of the infamous Azazel on stage, an early Finnish black metal coven lost to annals of history but fondly remembered by everyone who breathed the air of 90′s Finland, when worship of darkness was still pure and cold… clad in spikes. Stories about Azazel and their infamous frontman Lord Satanachia are equivalent to an inverted saga, one of madness and devotion. For a decade the band was forgotten until suddenly it seemed to have reformed in alliance with some members from young occult metal band Charnel Winds. It all seemed unbelievable and to see it with one’s own eyes… triumph!
It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that an Azazel gig might prove to be a disaster, in normal sense. Enveloped in the mists and throes of an ancient curse, the guitarist’s malfunctioning equipment threw the disorganized band from the brink of a metaphorical cliff into the abyss, to be carried upon the wings of Death. While Demonos threw himself from the audience into the stage in an alcoholic spasm, wires were torn, microphones were ripped and fists started flying. Part of the equipment was mute, the rhythm section was confused and Satanachia’s croaks were barely audible chants and incantations of demonic names. A morbid pall descended upon Helsinki. In anti-arranged structures of primitive, broken black metal, Azazel mocked everything and everyone. Brilliant and beautiful riffs, performed at variable and confused speeds, interlocked with rhythms and blasts whose randomness remained cryptically problematic. No-one knew if the songs are actually like this or have all the members gone insane. The most sensitive part of the crowd was devastated and ultimately impressed. Others were bored and drunk. Enough said about that evening except that I doubted even Saturday can give a more authentic black metal experience, because for the rest of the night and the next day, Azazel’s psychosis was still deeply within my heart.
The church of blasphemy
Saturday night was again cloaked in the weather of Jack the Ripper’s London. Through the rain we approached the ominously titled Dante’s Highlight, converted from an old church on whose steps Mannerheim and Hitler had shaken hands in a pact of war. It served as a normal nightclub until a few years ago it became one of the prominent metal bars of Helsinki. We have no knowledge how much blasphemous intent influenced its current use, but it was something to see candles and torches lighting the altar (stage), bestowing a comforting, cavernous gleam upon the high ceiling and reflecting from the chain-wrapped wooden posts adorned with gasmasks. The gig organizers par excellence Kold Reso Kvlt had taken lots of care in making this event perfect, as it was also the destination of a veritable exodus of German, French, Italian and other foreign black and death metal fans.
Proclamation from Spain launched into formally perfect, yet somehow vague and heartless Blasphemy aping primitive death metallic sounds and while the gig was technically the dream of your standard NWN forum fan, it raised apprehension that this is going to be an evening where every band sounds the same and everyone plays a Blasphemy cover! There was still some space to move around the building but despite three floors, it was rapidly becoming claustrophobic and difficult to breathe. The gig had been sold out ages ago. Black Witchery from Florida, USA, specialized in repetitive high speed exercise of redundant riffs, which despite its great marketing value to black metal consumers lacks the spiritual depth and intellectual convolution of the high masters of the genre. To anyone who has heard a Black Witchery album or two it was easy to guess what the gig is all about and for their fans, they probably did deliver the goods. I liked a few of the atonal, destructive, confusional parts that reminded me of the greatness of the Australian disbanded legend Bestial Warlust.
By the time the third band, Archgoat from Turku, Finland, commenced their set, the full force of the Finnish metal scene had already coalesced upon the building and for anyone who knows people or is known himself, much time and attention had to be spent on greetings, handshakes, throwing the horns, mock fighting and the like. However, the atmosphere was also rapidly gaining a more intense, expectant and noxious odour. Screams, blood and bursts of madness spattered the overcrowded club. Between pockets of peace, chaos reigned, the passing of souls from one layer of Hell to another, brother and enemy united in prayers of profanation. While for some people the grinding, organic and physical malevolence of Archgoat marked their best gig ever, I say the 2005 comeback gig after a decade of silence still holds the scepter. Heavily influenced by VON and Sarcofago, Archgoat was the first band of the evening to capture a cold, theatrical melody and frame the counterpoints of primitive death metal riffs with heavy, well placed doom. It was the only performance of the evening whose spine was not hardened by monotonous speed. Instead, it slithered up the walls like a serpent of abomination.
Amidst beer, guts and blood, headbanging Italians and Finns going mad over the controversies and abstractions of the night’s leading band (“Are Blasphemy real, do they really exist?” “Is that negro over there Caller of the Storms?”) everyone who was ever famous in Finnish black metal walked entranced amidst the crowd, as one with the spiritually dead. Black metal skinheads went out for a smoke and traded with kebab and banana merchants around the corner. Someone’s face was fisted and another got a kiss from a new girl.
Revenge, the Canadian commando force, was for some members of the audience the main event to witness here and for a good reason. By the unholy candles’ light, between the walls built to serve God, James Read attacked the drumkit like a voodoo priest releasing magick vapours of steaming ether, in a sharp and fluid tribute to grindcore percussion masters. In a battle position, in the attire of a right wing street fighter, Helmkamp’s fingers tore thrash influenced phrases from the trusty bass guitar as he used to do already decades ago in Order from Chaos, while his sharp intonation revealed the lyrics be less a narration, more a ritual chant of words whose meaning and connotation have been obvious to warriors for millennia: “traitor”, “victory”, “blood”, “conquest”, “force”, “survival”. The robotic, inhumanly precise ability of the three musicians to control chaos resulted in the most impressive technical display of the evening. It caused uncertainty and fear. What can even the mighty Blasphemy do after this 100-percent martial art display of perfect war metal kata forms?
Luckily we didn’t need to wait very long until Black Winds and co. gave us the answer. As a storm of the angels of apocalypse and doom, this noisy but influential group of Canadians were far from any kind of perfection in their music. They appeared as in constant battle, a crackling terror of violent audial force, ripping and rending the soundscape of world without end. Dramatic and physical, it seemed as if the walls are about to collapse. Black Winds seemed at times lost, at others frenzied and focused. Strong war screams arose from his throat in defiance to heavens. Caller of the Storms didn’t play his guitar, he molested its corpse. A gargantuan sized session bassist filled the forefront and provided background vocals. Ryan Förster of Conqueror played second guitar wearing a gasmask. Original drummer 3 Black Hearts of Damnation and Impurity pulsed, leaped and attacked with his beats as lightning that strikes amidst a raging storm. It wouldn’t be correct to say the band was in top form, or something. The band was a force of nature, a mission of war that happened on stage. It didn’t compete with the musical precision and finesse of Revenge. It maimed the listeners with its droning and anti-sacred frequencies into submission, obeisance and ultimately an intuitive sense of the laws of nature. Cosmos, life, nature is about war. That’s what war metal and Blasphemy is about. The order of things, as it is, revealed in chaos. The highest principle of art, which is truth. Rarely, in years of seeing the finest of the bands perform on stage, have I been filled with such a calm, inspired joy as in the midst of this night’s rendition of “War Command”.
Thus, I have witnessed two of the finest evenings of black metal this year. I give my highest and sincere thanks to individuals who year after year, day after day, spend their attention and hard work to organize cultural events of the highest magnitude, even while they will never be as celebrated for their work as even mediocre bands are. Flyers and ads already promise interesting happenings for next year, so for now, I still very much enjoy living in this Northern land of bloody lakes and corpse-strewn woods!
By the time the doors opened at the Forum at 2pm, individuals were already gathering outside the venue. As the hours passed themselves by, more people congregated in accordance with the more prominent bands that were playing.
Cork duo Ghost Of Medina began proceedings just after the doors opened, and played purely instrumental music that bore strong resemblances to the music of post-hardcore acts such as Isis and Neurosis. At this early stage of the day, the venue was under packed and more or less saturated the impact of their live performance: both guitarist and drummer were highly able, and performed compositions that were well thought out, though like most bands of their ilk, it seemed at times like a disorganized pastiche of ideas. Nothing particularly special, but an otherwise necessary means to begin proceedings.
The next band to play, Belfast’s Overoth, played an excellent short set, and played mid-to high pace death metal that were of a consistent formula: the simplistic song structures of Swedish acts, such as Unleashed and Dismember, combined with the techniques not uncommon on the early works of New York metal acts Suffocation and Immolation. The production on their studio output is the clear, crunchy tone not unlike the sound of classic Entombed, though their live acoustics this day had a rough edge to it, sounding raw yet discernible, like Morbid Angel’s ‘Covenant’ it was well treated yet free of artificial compressions. For a crowd that was not yet numerous enough at that early stage and somewhat less participant than could have been, Overoth had quite a commanding presence in the midst of what could do lesser acts a complete lack of justice.
Just as energetic and fierce were England’s Spearhead, whose appearance at the venue was partially beset and delayed by unknown travel circumstances. A somewhat abrupt end to the band’s brief set came across as a slight disappointment. A well respected act on the underground circuit, their style is a hybrid of the British death metal/grindcore that defined Carcass and Bolt Thrower, with the charging tempos and structures of modern acts, Angelcorpse and Axis Of Advance. Guitar technique was skillful yet not over-extravagant, solos bearing a strong resemblance to the classic Trey Azagthoth/Richard Brunelle trade-off style, with vague similarities to the shredding Gene Palubicki, with clicking, compressed and tight drums an aesthetical paean to the acoustics of a machine gun. Their precise, warlike songs again should have generated a much more enthusiastic reception from a venue that was still under crowded at that phase, though they were still a pleasure to watch, and made their craftsmanship known.
Kildare’s Mourning Beloveth were the first act of the night to generate strong passions from the audience. Their morbid, downtempo heavy metal was met with a good stage humour, and they received the warmest of responses from a crowd that was by this time, healthy in a size and possibly spurred on to enthusiastic involvement by the ingestation of alcohol. More fitting to this good performance was the set time they were allocated, which allowed for their lengthy dirges to weave momentum. Musically, they bring about the gothic overtones of My Dying Bride and mix it with simpler, melodic song structures that resemble influential NWOBHM bands like Witchfinder General or Angel Witch, and sluggish, flowing tempos that echo Skepticism.
Onslaught played a very competent and energising set, their Discharge-esque speed metal came across as provocative and inspired. Even with newer songs that seemed watered down at times, and perhaps lacking the chaotic splendor of their early period, their setlist was full of momentum, and was performed with great prowess, the falsetto wails of the vocalist evoking a general atmosphere of nostalgia of an era that pre-dated the mass commercialization of the metal genre. I would conclude personally that Onslaught may be now past their best days, but their excellence as a live band is fitting to a climate where an improving work ethic and a greater respect for artistic clarity is making itself heard amidst what some have called ‘hard times’.
Primordial got the warmest of receptions by a native crowd, and stylistically began where Mourning Beloveth left off; melancholic in a sense that only Ireland could fathom and know, but more triumphal than the former, and almost Nietzschean in the sense that their music makes one stare into the abyss, only to emerge a better man. They played a lengthy set, consisting of material that ran in fluid cohesion, like a more hookish, streamlined My Dying Bride, and a use of guitar dominated forms that reference Burzum as much as they do Candlemass. Impressive as is known the onstage dynamism of vocalist Alan Averill, whose onstage character is that vibrant it comes across as bring rhetorical without having to make use of words. In terms of showmanship, professionalism, a will to evoke the vision of tragic heroism, Primordial were the most impressive band of the entire festival, with little room for dispute.
Legendary grindcore veterans Napalm Death were hotly anticipated though came across as a disappointment due to two factors: the first being the depleted length of their set, and the second being what some perceived as a muddied sound job that permeated the guitars during their time onstage. During the intensity of their set, which given their indisputable live reputation would have made little difference to the highly involved crowd; though due to an unbalanced mix, it was only possible to follow the song forms through memory of having heard them before. Songs were from the mostly from the earlier part of their discography, and in between this were pieces taken from their latest release. Anyone new to the band listening to their performance I am sure would have had trouble trying to appreciate the nature of some of the output, and would have otherwise physically involved themselves in the ensuing crowd actions purely for the sake of doing so. The set did not even exceed forty-five minutes and this was also perceived as an obvious disappointment given the fact that they were given the headlining slot.
In spite of anything that might have at anytime proved to be detrimental, this happened to be an excellent day and evening. It was especially brilliant for an event such as this to actually take place in the south-east of Ireland. By all accounts it was a memorable night.
diSEMBOWELMENT’s only full-length release is one of those classic Metal albums that takes the most rudimentary elements of the previous generation and arranges them in accordance with a unique and evolved artistic and spiritual vision. Though initially reminiscent of the blasting, grinding chaos of bands like Necrovore and Napalm Death, diSEMBOWELMENT waste no time setting in motion the epic, spiritual journey that they have clearly defined through the course of the album. The resonant tremelo riff that suddenly mystifies the raw and brutal, typically Death Metal soundscape is actually the centerpiece of the entire album. It’s a phrase that will recur throughout, and as it strummed, chanted, plucked and synthesized, it reflects an elevation of consciousness from the realisation of mortality, suffering and the nothingness that envelops it all to a state of serene understanding. The frenetic riffing more often gives way to monumentally heavy and meditatively slow passages, crafting a sense of silence or stillness that is at one with cold and impersonal reality. These are punctuated and layered with primal rhythms and manifestations of that central theme, as the journey unfolds to illustrate the gruelling path of spiritual awakening. Transcendence… is an album that should be approached with the same discipline that the band itself put into it’s creation. It’s one of the most thoughtfully crafted works of Death Metal that deserves a place as more than just an unusual, cult classic.