AURORA INFERNALIS V: Arnhem (NL), 26th October 2013
On paper this year’s edition of Aurora Infernalis looked particularly exciting, but it wasn’t until it all kicked off that one could truly appreciate and savour the multifaceted offerings of a top quality line-up, strong and unified in ethos but especially proud of its diversity. This is a festival that will not exists at all costs but would rather hibernate if unable to fulfill its mission, therefore attending was also a matter of supporting people who put genuine passion for music above all else in organizing the event, as well as a matter of personal pleasure. This is a festival that makes me proud of carrying on supporting dark underground music through the decades, and this year was especially meaningful for me. So wearing the fest t-shirt and the elegant Vemod one was a little tribute to Mr Vlemmings, while the brand new Oranssi Pazuzu was a shameless hint for further dark greatness to come?...
KRAKOW are not particularly known, possibly because the Bergen lads are not purveyors of black metal but rather are keen explorers of a broader, eclectic metal tradition that places them along the progressive lines of Enslaved, as demonstrated in their excellent 2012 album “diin”. They are well rounded musician who have played with the likes of Virus, Vreid and Secrets of the Moon amongst others, so even though they had the ungrateful task to open the festival, it was immediately obvious that they relished the challenge. Front-man/bass player Frode, clearly the metalhead within the group, looked as if he had summoned a hefty amount of energy to spur on an already quite substantial crowd. They kicked off aggressively with fast numbers redolent of classic metal, leaving the more experimental and progressive tracks for the second half of the set. The latter were definitely the more enjoyable and interesting, in fact I’d personally favour an entire live set made of their lengthier, engrossing offerings. This was a short and sweet first live encounter with Krakow for me, and - in spite of my personal taste – I thought, given the early schedule, it was a good choice to start with a punch and then wind down with their more atmospheric music. This is something that the following band should have emulated…
Months ago I received the news of the addition of Ukrainian pagan/black metal band KHORS to the AIV line-up with great excitement, and I clearly was not the only one, as the Luxor hall was nicely packed for their live European debut. Although their latest album did not quite match the epic beauty of “Returned to Abandoned”, I was very keen to see if they were able to transfer their poetic intensity, fruit of a beautiful guitar sound and lush layers of keyboards, to the live show dimension. I already knew that they like to present themselves adorned in corny heavy metal paraphernalia such as leather and spikes, but hey, white make-up is not exactly fresh news these days either… Unfortunately it turned out that Khors also play in a quite conventional manner, far more suitable for the big, open air metal festivals, or perhaps this is what they are used to in their own country. Although the vast majority of the crowd seemed to enjoy their mainly mid-paced performance, I personally found it lacked the substance and intensity I expected of them: perhaps the guys were slightly jaded from the long journey but I hoped for a stormier, more epic and faster-paced performance.
It was now 16:30 and the festival was to shift up a gear with the mesmerizing arrival of Swedish/Chilean band HETROERTZEN. This act delivers the whole package: their visual & aural ritual that is one of the few truly must-see live performances within the current trend of theatrical black metal. While blood spilling and esoteric ceremonials abound these days (and let’s be frank, most of them are corny and ridicule) here it is clear that Art is at the very core of the band’s effort. For once it is not the number of esoteric objects on display or the coolness of the costumes to make this work, but the conceptual work behind it all, which is finely balanced between mystery and a subtle, disorienting sexual charge, uncommon in black metal. The musicians came onstage looking very striking (particularly endearing for me the third eye painted in black on their foreheads) and raised a chalice towards the drummer; then the hooded and caped frontman joined them and the music exploded: tight, arcane and hypnotizing black metal which hits in the right spots.
This was the second time I enjoyed their show, and I savoured the fact that the sumptuous richness in blasts and tremolo pickings would have stood perfectly fine on their own even without the stage visuals, but the combination of both is definitely a winner. And although all the members of the well assorted band are worth observing, it is Kæffel who draws all eyes. His large liquid eyes, courtesy of all-black contact lenses, pierced through from a dark beaded eyemask, while his sculpted cheekbones and thin nose look ghostly under the white powdery make up. The only other visible part of his body, dressed in a wonderful black suit that remind me of an 80s Bramstokers’ Dracula underneath the hooded cape, were his long thin hands, elongated by pointed, anemic nails, which gesticulated with grace and elegance. The ethereal vampire performed a story which had the audience engrossed, including the big skinheads by my side. And as the epilogue approached, his androgynous, non-human persona slowly shifted into something else, something no-longer a-sexual. The mask was lifted, the hood and cape came off, the long jet-black hair were released from the pony tail: standing as man rather than “other”, looking gloriously morbid and defiant like a Rozz Williams reborn (the legend in early Christian Death), Kæffel finally lifted the large metallic pentacle which hung in front of the drumkit towards the audience. Spectacle.
MGLA did a quick soundcheck in their everyday attire, and perhaps you will not be too surprised in reading that we are worlds apart from their chillingly unsettling stage presence. The hall was full for their powerful performance, which aims at delivering a ruthlessly cold maelstrom of eastern black metal whilst erasing individuality to naught by looking anonymous and alike. This is something that is deeply appreciated by those who are still attached to the pure, olden spirit of BM where the musician protected the integrity of music through secrecy and unavailability. There is no question though that live music is something immensely gratifying and therefore the Poles found a fair compromise when elected to take their music to the stage. I decided to climb to the balcony over the hall to admire the spectacle, squeezing through the merch stalls, which this year enjoyed a privileged aerial view. The band looked ominous from above, and the crowd was very involved in a show that invariably grabs you by the throat.
Belgians LUGUBRUM were a bit of an unknown quantity for me, since I had heard little by them, but they had all the ingredients to have me intrigued through a unique and un unfashionable approach towards blackened avant-garde metal. This was an exclusive show, so I might be right in guessing that they do not perform too often, but a quick look at the musicians involved confirmed my feeling that this is an eclectic artistic ensemble based on freedom of expression. While the intriguing frontman reminded me of a psychotic Ihsahn, the guitarist stroke me as someone with a very solid but variegated rock background (I often got a punk/post punk vibe from his playing) while the bass player was clearly a jazzman. The concoction, held together by unique, purposely monotonous shrieking vocals that evoked both mental & physical pain in bucketfuls, often took me towards Virus-like trajectories, especially during the bouncier numbers, but I consistently felt the lack of Einar’s touch, which is tremendously important in punctuating Virus’ mad partitures. I found Lugubrum’s drumming far too simplistic (except for the excellent final track, where a few much required clever touches were finally added) although, as a whole, a certain stark minimalism was one intriguing jelling ingredient in this odd mix, contrasting with the hectic work by the stringed instruments. The set was extremely varied, each song having a style of its own, always wavering between the psychotic and the ironic: I was definitely conquered and they will be object of further explorations. Well done for booking them!
Finally we were climbing towards the Olympus of the festival. THE RUINS OF BEVERAST had given some of us a real treat at Roadburn back in April, and tonight they were one of the most eagerly anticipated bands. Their show made once again extensive use of blood-red lighting and plenty of dry ice, mercilessly pumped out on our faces at industrial quantities: carbon dioxide might not be toxic, but it is one hell of a nuisance when one is unfortunate enough to be right on the machine’s trajectory! This time Meilenwald’s mike effects worked properly and all was set for a great show. The band effectively builds anti-Christian cathedrals with their blackened gothic doom, with an unsettling yet solid architecture that captures the seemingly indestructible strength of a creepy faith built on guilt and exploitation of ignorance. While observing the bobbing heads and the fists thrown in the air by a smitten audience, I cannot help thinking how the great new PR counterattack by the Vatican through the election of a “nice” and “popular” Pope will affect the cultural and socio-political scenario of the world. My gloomy thoughts floated in unison with the captivating, undoubtedly attractive (and slightly more accessible in its recent incarnation) dark sound of TROB. A band that I will never tire of watching.
This year Aurora Infernalis wanted to offer an extra atmospheric facet to its faithful punters by injecting some dark ambient into the suggestive setting of the Luxor theatre, and what better than shifting through some hefty slabs of SVARTSINN’s haunted bleakness in-between band change-overs? Like Vemod, Jan Roger Pettersen hails from beautiful Trondheim (or Nidaros), one of the most interesting epicenters of uncompromisingly dark artistry in recent times, which does make you wonder if there is a secret well of madness where these musicians drink from to connect to the terrifying mysteries of the cosmos. If truth be told, Svartsinn’s lure was not as compelling as the good weather enjoyed by the Dutch town on this late October day/night, therefore most of the punters gathered outside the venue at every possible occasion. Conversely, since I have been living in the land of perennial good weather (indeed the California of Europe) for longer than originally intended, I soaked in the lugubrious gloom by staying indoors, while keeping a close eye on the preparations ongoing on stage: DHG were setting up in a laid back, almost carelessly jolly fashion for what was the penultimate date of their “Incantations over Europe” tour with Hetroertzen and Troll.
Vikotnik walked forward towards his mike on the left hand side of the stage with his typical light stepped walk: not too tall and very slender, he looks endearingly sexy in a pair of multi-holed black jeans tucked in his typical high galoshes marked with the red DHG logo flaring over his boots. His svelte silhouette and the huge bushy beard sticking out from equally as unkempt hair which, in the dim light, look like frayed algae hanging from an underwater relict, initially reminded me of those cute Manga characters I always fall for: weird and mysterious, half clumsy pirate - half sensitive mystic. But when the concert began, and the lights hit the stage, Vikotnik transformed into a crazy sadhu: what was not covered by hair and beard was smeared in blue-ish ashes, his vivid dark eyes piercing through a mind-blowing blur of apocalyptic future and shamanic past. Visually, he hit me as one of the most stirring, visceral, honest and direct manifestations of the insane root of humanity witnessed on stage in a good while, together with Luctus of One Tail, One Head. Sometimes the artist IS the work of art, but here it was never about the individual but the music: gigantically so.
With Dødheimsgard’s album release delayed until the beginning of 2014, this tour was firmly about their phenomenally glorious old stuff, perhaps in view of hitting the usual fests over the summer to promote the new outing… or maybe not. Who knows how these mad Norwegians, who encapsulate the criminally underestimated fuckinpunkanarchic spirit of early 90s black metal, will handle the big label experience. It was quite obvious that this was a very special occasion for DHG and the fans, as it is a celebration of what DHG were/are about at this point of their eventful existence. The return of Aldrahn to front the band is definitely an emblematic turning point, as the man is a hefty and grounded presence on stage, taking a big weight off Yusaf’s shoulders, who looked rather nervous at the Aurora Infernalis gig in 2011 where he took on all the vocal duties. Since I positioned myself on one side of the stage in case of sudden mosh pit explosions, Aldrahn was not my main focus, but he was engaging in his unpretentious intensity and twisted irony, moving the energy around him with the palms of his hands like a Shaolin monk.
Musically they were exhilarating: phenomenally hard-hitting, effortlessly ruthless but extraordinarily full of empathy and humanity. Yes, like a punk band. The extreme punk that metallers will never understand because they think it is worlds apart from their orthodox universe: but it doesn’t matter, because to me DHG and Darkthrone are the perfectly harmonious continuation of groundbreaking extreme 80s punk through back metal, and if you have another view on this, it matters not. What matters is that tonight DHG were so wonderful that I could not stop smiling throughout the set. Behind me Walter/ Kæffel of Hetroertzen was also smiling like a kid, and so was everybody else… Aldrahn ends the concert by kneeling on the floor, fetus like, and then uncurling back up to receive the ovation of the crowd. Truly. Magnificent.
I wanted more. The stage looked painfully empty now that the meaty, hearty spirit of DHG had vacated it. I turned my back to it to wind down, and Svartsinn’s music slowly swept my mind clean. I became increasingly aware of the presence of an intensely magnetic energy moving silently behind me: VEMOD were setting up. This is a band that represents for me and many others a nobler way to approach life: whilst many seek to recapture a righteous, honorable way of living by idealizing the past (albeit fully aware that The Past was far from perfect, in fact it was a terrifyingly hard world where the simple things we are so nostalgic of today were rarely enjoyed due to the constant wars, illnesses and terrible hardships most people had to endure), these young artists and life explorers look inwardly in a dimension that mirrors the vast and tragic mysteries of the cosmos to take inspiration and draw energy from in order to face the future.
These people might seem romantics from a bygone era, but their rapport with nature and spirituality is wholly modern, incarnating the perfect union between dreamy shamanism (intended as capacity to feel at one with all life around us, while having a reverential respect for nature’s might) and the rational spirit of today, empowered by fecund, daring interdisciplinary roaming. The cosmos represents our deepest past but also our unconceivable future; it represents the mystery of life itself, which goes beyond the human condition. And Vemod were here tonight to bring us a slice of this universe through mythological images of the night sky with its stars and planets, the eeriness of its aurora borealis, and haunting sounds that mirror the journey of the human soul irremediably in love/awe with the fathomless unknown. Once again Vemod’s music blurred archaic myth and the stunning beauty of physical phenomena in one glorious metartistic performance where spirit and flesh truly united: it was entrancing, uplifting, mesmerizing. In-between avant-garde theatre and a philosophers’ séance, this concert was in fact so moving, so powerful and cathartic that both musicians and audience were plunged into another dimension. Still unforgettable, three weeks on, the magnificent experience of seeing, eyes closed, successive outbursts of distant stars while abandoning myself to the magnificent blast beat flash-floods… Live, only some dark electronic music, certain blackened psychedelia and some cosmic doom have the power to summon tribal energies of such depth and intensity, therefore what this band has been capable to achieve in such a short span of live experience is truly mind-blowing. Lucky those of us who assisted, since this level of art is indeed very rare, very precious.