An evening of black metal with Immortal, Mayhem and…many more.
I’m six hours into a black metal binge…
It’s been a night of melancholic, guttural voices, growling vocals and distorted guitars, a weird mixture of noise and a hypnotic atmosphere and I’m feeling strange in a good way – lost in a dense, dark and strange world of face paint and sombre music played at a high decibel- a place where Kiss meet the journey into the heart of darkness ride of a Joy Division or The Cure when they were doing pornography.
It’s one of the great things about Incubate Festival – a cutting edge culture festival in Holland that does not edit pop culture and accepts that black metal is one of the key scenes in modern music, perhaps one of the few places where music’s still moving forward. Unlike ‘alternative’ radio Incubate doesn’t ignore Black Metal.
This year Incubate includes an insane night of black metal – an unrelenting celebration of the controversial form that takes in bands such as Immortal and Mayhem (both big names in Black Metal) and a whole varied host of other outfits on the undercard like Gehenna, Khold, Sonne Adam, Behexen, Dragged Into Sunlight, Funeral Winds, Chaos Invocation, Verbum Verus, Serpent Noir, Neige Morte and Grift. It’s a very loud and brilliantly unsettling snapshot of the form’s history and current diverse form.
This was one long and often thrilling night of strange looking men in ghoulish make up and unusual stage clothes playing unrelenting dark music with a fantastic earnestness and with very little concern for the trad fripperies of showbiz despite their make up and skull stage sets.
In the packed main hall the biggest draw are Immortal who are three stocky men who kinda look like trolls. Each one is dressed in classic rock gear -spandex, studs long hair, big boots- but their faces are painted white and every now and then the bassist swirls his long hair like a follicle Catherine wheel disguising his scowling white face. The lead singer is growling in a deep troll like grunt and the drummer plays fast and complex rhythms while the bass drums rattle like a machine gun.
Immortal are one of the second wave of black metal bands who came out Norway in the mid-nineties inspired by the demonic darkness of the instigators of the form who are also on the bill tonight, Mayhem. Immortal have taken the initial distorted darkness of the form and turned it into riff driven rock, it would be pretty trad if it were not for the fact they still operate in the sonic darkness of the genre.
Before them there are many hours of a varying spread of cranked black noise.
Dragged Into Sunlight are mask wearing doom mongers from Liverpool whose concealed identities makes them even more intriguing- with even their names reduced to one letter each and their music further reduced to heavily distorted, mashed out missives that faithfully take on that lo-fi production of early Mayhem records. It’s like minimalism through a fuzzbox.
Funeral Winds are home-grown Dutch black metal who formed in 1991 and have retained the corpse paint satanic imagery thing from the start and are sullenly loud, causing mass head shaking in the black clad faithful.
Verbum Venus are Germans with a Motorhead style guttural approach whilst Serpent Noir are Greeks with a Gothic tinged black thrash.
Gehnna’s Goth tinged, neo classical, black metal has enough growling vocals and corpse paint and operatic darkness to work – they have prominent keyboards on their recorded output that makes them stand out as it plays operatic runs that are almost like the wonderful Dave Greenfield from the Stranglers or the baroque styling’s of the Doors. They even seem to have a woman in the band on the records which is rare – although all that face paint and long hair makes this kind of IDing genders tricky.
Khold are less freakish as they blast beat through their more traditionally “rock” set whilst Neige Morth are from Lyon France and bring a welcome experimental edge to the evening with a neo-Swans sense of space and sludge. They are really fucking great, full on distorted bass filth and a hint of free jazz and post rock twisted into the enticing darkness, a fantastic band and we will definitely be revisiting these.
Grift are a local Dutch black metal band whilst Bhexen have a singer who looks like Nosferatu and are from Finland and, like many of the smaller bands on tonight, they epitomise the Kvlt end of black metal, the obscure underground, 300 pressing at a time, genuine screw loose stuff with black and white covers. Satanic imagery, that kind of thing, and their stage set pretty well much extends this with a myriad of strange symbols.
Sonne Adam are proof of the international reputation of the form although they tend to be classed more as death metal but they have enough of a dose of doom to keep the black clad faithful intrigued. The Israeli outside sound positively positive surrounded by the relentless darkness of their fellow festival travellers.
Pretty soon you realise that this is an evening like no other – six hours in the company of a musical niche that celebrates noise and darkness and has become an international byword for a rock music that is undiluted by the mainstream.
Currently many shoegaze bands are now entwining their sound with the melancholic edge of black metal, those unlikely moments of beauty that emerge from the fierce guitars, the moments when the unrelenting pace is dropped for a few bars – oddly it’s always there in the music, the melancholy of classical music, the sadness of the misty fjords and the unrelenting rain, at its best this is a new folk art, a purely Norwegian take on a very British roots form arguably started by Black Sabbath before being filtered by the sonic assault of Motorhead and the proto black thrash of Venom. The Norwegians have taken from the early eighties metal of the urban UK cities and transposed it to the complex and private culture of the land of the Vikings.
The past few years have seen a catching up process by the rest of the music scene with black metal becoming more recognised as a form and as it fractures into a myriad of thrilling micro scenes from Wardruna’s take on it which sees the musicians drop the metal and create Viking instruments and play atmospheric Norwegian folk, to Ulva, whose almost techno-industrial blues take on it is mind-blowing, to Gorgoroth who are keeping the rock but entwining it with their own distinct sadness and classical beauty and to people like Botanist and his dulcimer driven songs about plants – please don’t tell me that music has stopped creating and has stopped moving, wherever you turn in black metal’s truly strange world stuff is happening, some of it is uncomfortable, some of it pretty stupid but plenty of it is genius.
Black Metal is a fascinating and strange scene, it operates on its own terms far away from the music media and hipster fashion. You can’t learn it in those music colleges as a respectable way to make living from music. It’s a real outlaw music, sometimes caused by some of its key figures own dark and unfortunate fascination with the right wing and the occult and, in the early days, church burning and murder but it’s not as simple as that, there is no clear political agenda and death and darkness and Satan, the eternal themes of the blues and rock are the strongest connection in the bands. Themes that strike a chord with pissed of and alienated teenagers everywhere who like to step outside the cosy confines of society – the themes are perfect but it’s the music that really makes the statement, you truly have to immerse yourself into it and it is genuinely worth the effort once you are in there.
It’s almost impossible to tell how serious the bands are tonight. It seems the more ridiculous the band dress the more serious they are and also the more sinister they seem.
Immortal are headlining tonight but it’s Mayhem that are causing the buzz – they were the first black metal band and their career reads totally unlike any other band in the history of rock. Put together by guitarist and record shop owner and instigator and driver of the initial scene, Euonymus, in 1984.
Euronymus had a vision of a band combining the darker noisier end of rock and punk at the time with Motorhead, crammed into Newcastle metal droogs Venom as well as Celtic Frost and a touch of Discharge’s ferocious rushes of sound added to the mix. The lo-fi sound of the early recordings meant that the bass almost disappears, the drummers are reduced to a mush and the guitar is a fierce psychotic fizz and the vocalist’s low register growls or strange croaking Troll like sounds are battling with the tidal wave of GRUNK. It’s all unrelentingly heavy with no nod to the trad blues structure of normal rock music and follows its own darker, deeper, more folk and classical based melodies and shapes creating a very European form of music.
It’s fascinating that the Mayhem’s original recordings that were partly created by poverty have become the template for a whole genre of music, that by being forced to make such fucked up recordings they ended up with something that sounded perfect – a compressed and wilfully difficult form of music that was almost impossible to decipher by anyone from the outside- perfect!
The music Mayhem came up with was like nothing else- the closest an old punk like me can come to is that fast, dark and faintly uncomfortable but genius rush of Rudimentary Peni.
Mayhem’s early recordings are utterly lo-fi, almost pure noise but this somehow added to their brilliance and became a template for bands to copy over the years. The ferocity of the playing and the intensity of performance created a cult mystique around the band but not as much as the church burnings that were caused by their small coterie of followers and the obsession with death that caused one of their singers Death to paint his face with corpse paint and bury his clothes in soil to get the smell of death and burial to them- quite brilliant in a strange way.
Death took his obsession to the extreme and committed suicide and Euonymus himself, who was the epicentre of the small scene at the time in Norway with his Oslo record shop and his unique vision was stabbed to death in a fight with rival musician Count Vrisnach who got 17 years in prison for his trouble.
This put the scene on the front pages in Norway and it has been providing endless permutations of this music ever since then and cementing an unlikely position for itself as the epicentre of rock at its darkest and most extreme.
So, Mayhem come with a lot of baggage- the stage is well and truly set, with backdrops, burning candles and pigs heads on staves, there are upside down crosses and devilish symbolism which is the backdrop to the band’s relentless attack. They have two almost original members- founder members on bass and drums, which gives them a sense of genuine.
Vocalist Attila is from Hungary and also sings with Sunn O))) It’s almost impossible to tell if he is playing this for laughs or is Vincent Price demonic as he enters the stage with a Dracula cloak and sings to a skull in a theatrical Shakespearean manner whilst he is swooping around the stage.
The band play loud but also play light– there is no sense of digging in but somehow, somehow they make this all work- there is a genuine darkness about them that may be an echo of the original idea of the band and also maybe infected by their own strange history. The songs are unrelentingly loud and fierce and the power comes from the atmosphere of a Norwegian mysticism from the last country to be converted to Christianity and a portal to a folk tradition that existed on the fringes of the Roman Empire, the so called ‘civilised’ Europe.
It’s this sense of history and this exploration of the black and the dark that is most compelling about the whole scene that is fast becoming one of the key musical genres of the times.