Extreme, dark metal has been my diet for such a long time that sometimes I surprise myself not to be bored stiff with it yet. Do I find it repetitive, less challenging? Not if I know where to look (far deep in the underground). Do I find it less subversive than it used to be? Mostly. But Incubate is all about showcasing the cutting edge: a perfect environment to discover new interesting artists with some intellectual depth. This year Incubate gathered a lot of the dark metal acts within an all-dayer festival at the 013, while other smaller venues were hosting more metal all week, from doom to death and grind. Friday’s bill was rather exciting and my schedule was quite frantic because of the inevitable overlaps, sadly resulting in cutting and chopping across a few performances. Not ideal, but if you are given the chance to taste all the candies in the entire candy shop, why not giving it a go?!...
I found quite a queue for opening act IRON WITCH (only one of the fairly large British contingent at Incubate) whose hardcore-infused sludge is not my cup of tea, so I soon made my way to the Kleine Zaal room for a bit of SERPENT NOIR. So far the studio offerings from the Greeks extolled a vile yet spellbinding kind of black metal in perfect fit with their chosen moniker. My first live impact with the young band did not overwhelm: they presented a rather stark and straight-forward ritualistic set (monk-outfits are everywhere these days and are starting to look seriusly contrived) and the music had failed to set itself alight by the time I joined the Norwegian stronghold that was tonight's main room to greet KHOLD.
More theatrical outfits here, sure, but at least unique and rather cool: Gard’s samurai-from-the-future trouser-skirt is awesome! But I was soon hit with the stark reminder of how so many good bands fail to leave their mark from this vast, tall stage: at least from the stage front, the Norwegians’ own brand of mid-tempo BM felt as if it was being sucked into a big void. So I returned to the ideal and very comfortable size of the Kleine Zaal for a taste of VERBUM VERUS, one amongst the plethora of Dutch bands present on this fest (perfectly mirrorring the depth and passion for metal of this great small nation). These musicians in particular are very active on the local scene, playing or having played in several other extreme bands.
The stage was decorated with a red dragon banner, a small altar with black candles and the inevitable handsome ram skull and powerful incense. Having heard that the local butchers had done some good business earlier on, I was prepared for some bloody surprises sooner or later... The guys were wearing white t-shirts soaked in half-dried blood during the brief sound check, and walked back on to play with smeared faces too. They kicked off explosively, but did not seem "dangerous"... only for the long haired bass player to spray blood all over us at his first headbanging motion: I have yet to clean off the dark red dots from my camera zoom. Musically, it was soon clear that this was going to be (pre-Grammy) Watain-inspired, meaty, black metal fun.
But it was upstairs in the smaller room where I wanted to be, eager to witness the performance of the much recommended TERZIJ DE HORDE. Author in 2010 of a splendidly intense EP called “A Rage of Rapture Against the Dying of the Light” and a memorable split with Starve in 2012, this post-black metal Dutch act is made of academics who put back socially engaged, thought-provoking content into extreme music: about time!!! The hardcore-ish vocals give us inkling that this music is as far removed as possible from the idiot metal of made-up fun-fair satanists, as their unassuming look testifies. Ironically, these days it is almost an act of rebellion not to walk on stage in a metal uniform of choice, but rather as “yourself”.
The band meandered and exploded into mangled shards of unadulterated, raw, tortured, soaring post-black metal that does not wish to belong to the r’n’r circus. The tormented, physical singer and the whirling dervish on bass were great to watch: one of the highlights of my Incubate and, simultaneously, my biggest regret, since I half-heartedly left mid-way to catch the start of the GEHENNA show on the big stage. I must catch Terzij de Horde again!
I admit to having given the Norwegian veterans’ new album only a quick listen before Incubate, but my early impression was quite positive (while I greatly enjoyed the promo for the upcoming ultra dark album of their other project, Throne of Katarsis). Sanrabb looked like a captivating anarcho-punk wizard with his flour-white face and camouflage coat, and I soon noticed that their recent brand of misanthropic black metal actually filled up rather gloriously the big arena. They soon began to churn out an avalanche of stark grimness delivered with static intensity: their Lucifer offerings consisted in a gripping, dignified (the music was indeed the main focus here) and very satisfactory performance, which prompted me to make a mental note to go back to listening to the promo of “Unravel” asap.
After a brief encounter with the all leather-clad Dutch veterans FUNERAL WINDS, who haven’t released new music since a good while, and they sounded so old-school that could easily have a new career as a decent blackened thrash band, I enjoyed a couple of storming songs by their fellow countrymen GRIFT in the small room. I am always taken aback by the fact that properly blasted, cold-as-fuck black metal can still have such a huge grip on me after so many years. So a well-crafted, classic track unleashed by an unknown (to me) local band fronting a small audience did it for me big time: happiness is indeed in the smallest things (and the Grift singer surely must agree with me, judging from the shining 7-inch-long nails protruding from his wristbands)! In the meantime the big stage was being prepared for MAYHEM.
Facing the stage from the top of the arena, I was greeted by a spectacle of red and black paraphernalia: getting closer, hiding behind screens I could make out Baroque statues of angels adorned with bright pink pig heads below; in front of the two screens there where trestles from which hung cheap upside-down crucifixes and dead black birds (I reiterate once again that I strongly oppose the killing of animals for the purpose of entertainment). In the center of the stage there was a fairly modest altar with the usual candles, skulls and bones on display, which was dwarfed by Hellhammer’s huge drumkit, by far the most exciting item to behold. Ultimately it was hackneyed theatrics we were in for: a stiff-necked Attila walked in looking half-jester/half-King Diamond and, amidst the undisputable flashes of brilliance, this was the gist of the show. With all due respect towards these immense legends, I quickly found myself bored, and although it was not so for many worshipping punters, some actually shared my feelings on this particular performance.
Well there was salvation at hand, as French experimental black metal/ noise mongers NEIGE MORTE were performing in the small room upstairs! This band’s debut album (2011) was not an easily digestible affair by any stretch of the imagination, so I was keen to see how material that conveys Peste Noir’s vile, destructive, organic anarchy and Aluk Todolo’s most unpredictable nightmares into one obsessive, hypothermic, dark mass, would fare in a live situation.
Their concert was a total stormer: mesmerizing, emotional, illuminating, everything but cold. First of all, singer Xavier Théret presence was phenomenal. He is a blood & sweat hardcore-type of frontman who delivers a credible, gut-wrenching, intensely physical performance (perhaps a modern, slightly less psychotic version of Henry Rollins); his barefoot moves also reminded me of the syncopate yet fluid plasticity of free-form dancers. Every gesture expressed the feelings behind the words and the sudden exhilarating, schizophrenic tangents of the music.
The sounds, incredibly, come just from a guitar and drums, both grittngly clashing and copulating to perform true magic. I found it difficult to take my eyes off entranced drummer JG in particular, whose free-jazz style delivered one surprise after the other, driving the set into continuous changes of dynamics and atmospheres. The connoisseur audience vastly appreciated the 45 minute long physical set, alternating frantic headbanging to moments of amazed stupor and delectation. All in all, this was my favorite performance @ Incubate, and a positive surprise that went beyond my expectations.
In the meantime just across the road bands like Age of Woe, Downfall of Gaia and Brutal Truth were also playing, but I had to give them a miss. Unfortunately I only caught the tail-end of CHAOS INVOCATION playing on the 013 second stage, then it was time for IMMORTAL with their pyro-show.
These days the band fills a popular gap in the market by delivering mainstream fantasy black metal with the visual “appeal” of a Kiss type of show. The old “Disneyland vs. Hordaland” dilemma does not really bother me as, in my book, black metal offered as entertainment/commercial commodity is not “black metal” but “mainstream metal” full stop, and personally I am not interested in the latter. I know I’d rather spend 10 minutes watching Immortal than Cradle of Filth, if only to giggle at Abbath’s funny crab-walk and acknowledge that they are indeed good professionals.
The pyro show I caught consisted in indoor-friendly fireworks which delivered black smoke with a loud bang, and the packed arena testified that this band offers a good package for the metal crowd that enjoys the waving their horned hands in the air. In the second room, cult act BEHEXEN awaited the conclusion of the big show before beginning their ritual. The Debemur Morti band is an early occult, anti-Christian BM legend, its line-up conjuring up true stirrers of the Finnish satanic BM scene (also part of Sargeist, Horna, Mortualia, etc.), not to mention Luctus of One Tail,One Head (ex-Celestial Bloodshed).
All this took me back to the incense-drenched, ritualistic performances I experienced at Prague Death Mass earlier this year, in fact under the hooded robes of the bass player there might have been the blond locks of someone who was on stage there, but who knows: a mask hid well the features of this blasphemous damsel. The déjà vu feeling was perhaps inevitable, and the small room was about to host a soul-shattering act I was keen to enjoy, DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT, so that's where I headed to.
The Brits’ visual offering is just as raw and uncompromising as their aural one, with an extensive use of strobe lighting to enhance the uncomfortable experience. Confirming the excellent show seen previously at Roadburn 2011, they performed masked and hooded, yet dressed in normal black clothes, disdaining any form of theatrics that might put the musician’s ego before the music itself: this is reiterated clearly by choosing to play with their backs to the audience.
The singer performed, doubled over himself from the painful screaming, behind the ever-present wonderful piece of ironmongery holding candles and a ram skull. This is collective, conceptual art that delivers a punch in the stomach and a kick up the ass: from the merging of black/death/doom with a crushing Mogwai-esque sensorial assault emerges a powerful representation of nihilism and hatred that is, paradoxically, a breath of fresh air within the metal scene, because it actually delivers the message in its truest, purest meaning. At Incubate they balanced their brutally mangling debut stuff off “Hatred towards Mankind” with the convulsive, eclectic and misanthropic experimentations of the slower, more recent “Widowmaker”. DIS is a truly nasty band, capturing all the filthiness of their UK 80s punk heritage (something I associate also to their fiercely ego-less ethos), and which knows how to concoct a multilayered orgy of bleak noise through an ugly, stark deliverance. Both on record and on stage, DIS provide a BEAST of an experience, a mind-fuck that shatters the soul and destabilizes the brain. Most of all, it represents a bastion of integrity, which is what we need to see more of within the underground itself.
The Incubate 2013 Metal fest was a treat, a place of discovery and a place of fun, even for this fussy and spoilt metalhead who has seen it all before… I read it reputes itself to be a “small festival”, and I’d like to fervently reiterate: that is GOOD!!! Two big headliners (albeit of pedigree) were the big crowd-pullers, but I met and talked to a few punters from other European countries who attended not because of them but because of the more cutting-edge offerings. I am sure that Incubate will keep faithful to this ethos, delivering next year some more finger-licking good, dark and twisted avantgarde within the metal (an non) spectrum.