CALEDONIAN DARKNESS Part 1
14th February 2014, Audio, Glasgow
It feels strange to be able to fly effortlessly over the Apocalypse recently unleashed upon England by our Almighty God of Love and Forgiveness. According to those who have superior knowledge on such important biblical matters, it was a fully expected punishment brought forth by Prime Minister David Cameron giving in on gay marriage: take a look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-25793358. This obscurantist brand of Christian fundamentalism, sharing common roots with Jewish and Islamic sharia laws, and rampant in the USA, hopefully is not too widespread here in Europe where the cultural level is higher, yet it does go hand in hand with some of the ideas and attitudes currently displayed by some reactionary political forces across the old continent. These transitional times are manifestly crucial and it is painful to see that some still believe in god’s wrath rather than in strong community spirit to overcome the disgusting carelessness and ineptitude of those in charge.
Thousands of people living in the badly flooded areas of the beautiful South-West of (home only a few years ago) were made homeless by a combination of unrelenting storms lashing across a historically vulnerable territory and chronic neglect from the Environmental Agency. Nevertheless, I am able to bypass all of that as if it did not exist. And this is how we have been enticed to live, each out for themselves, the American dream and the La Veyan one seamlessly overlapping. While flying above the densely grey mass of clouds which screens me from seeing the flooded lands, I ruminate on what it must have been like when humans were not yet assisted by technology (incidentally, the British government called for Dutch aid and know-how, far superior in this type of aquatic issues; in fact the Dutch are not just cleverer, they are genuinely bothered about their land and fellow-citizens): a similar situation would have caused a huge death toll for a start. These are the sort of events that should bring back to reality those blessed souls who are romantically infatuated with the idea of an idyllic Past, forgetting how unhealthy and vulnerable we all were, fully exposed to the ravaging fury of pestilences; of ruthless, blood-thirsty raids for food, human slaves and new territories; of endless wars in the name of worthless kings and made-up gods; all that on top of the cyclical atmospheric and geological upheaval. Would anybody swap the stressful modern life of slavery to the $ for a tougher, yet simpler, life of… slavery to the next greedy chieftain or despotic warlord?... Well, anything to restore some kind of “natural selection”! In reality the human condition has not changed much throughout the centuries, except these days most of us are able to enjoy a certain degree of freedom (if we play the game, of course) and (sometimes pernicious) comfort ; crucially, have access to education, which is what we have always dreamt of and striven for. I am all for trying to move forward still, providing we readjust radically our priorities, purge some of our bad habits, overthrow the corrupt, reassess our socio-economic aspirations while enhancing our spiritual relationship with and scientific understanding of Nature. The Future is, after all, home to yearnings that can come true if we work hard in the Present and understand objectively the lesson of the Past. And here, up in the sky with dozens of other fellow-travelers, the Past inevitably seems far gone…
And then I land in Glasgow.
In an already darkening afternoon, I reach the Audio venue through a frantic blur of fine silvery raindrops buzzing in the chilly wind like suspended needles. There, I am met by the Past in all its complex duplicity. Compared to a majestic yet fading Edinburgh, Glasgow is nowadays a vibrant and modern city that has in many ways succeeded in raising its head from decades of appalling neglect. Sign (and deep incongruence) of our wealthy times, even us spoiled European Black Metallers – perched like crows at the fringes of the extreme metal underground - have been accustomed to enjoy our concerts and festivals in comfortable theaters or clubs fully brought into the XXI century: dungeon-dark and eerie, yes, but fairly clean, warm environment where cloakrooms are no longer a luxury. Having been away from the UK for a while, I had all too quickly forgotten how the underbelly of its larger cities, unless colonized by covetous "young urban professionals" or soulless shopping centers, is often left to fester under layers of decay, filth, soot and moss. So when I briskly walk underneath the railway bridge close to Glasgow Central Station and go through the venue door seeking a welcome refuge from the cold, my first impact is simply ferocious: a wall of overpowering musty smell grabs me by the throat; it is damp, colder than it is outside, and feels utterly unhealthy. And yet, I suddenly realize that this cavernous, unforgiving environment is wholly appropriate: I am, at least for my suave personal standards, in Underground-Hell. My all-British anarcho-punk teenage roots are stirred, and what I proudly uphold as undying, unfaltering Underground ethos, once again, makes crude, honest sense. Bring it on! One of my peers does try to annihilate the smell of damp by releasing deadly farts all night long, to no avail; yet this festering environment ends up being active catalyst for a mind-blowing set of performances.
SOLSTHEIM is an old yet not particularly active incarnation of primitive Scottish black metal. Previously unknown to me, it is the last opportunity to see them on stage, since the band will carry on under a different moniker. It must be mentioned that Solstheim’s guitarist is in fact Tom Glenn of Ophidian Arcanum, organizer of this first slab of Caledonian Darkness. A lot of the underground festivals I like to attend are fruit of the personal passion of a single individual or a small group of music lovers. This makes them very special, being a tight collaboration between fans and bands that often entails economical sacrifices and commitment to punishing schedules, but which will almost always be worth everybody’s while. So, thank you and well done Tom Glenn for bringing Mare, Sortilegia and One Tail, One Head for the first time to the UK; even better, to Scotland, my soon-to-be new home! Solstheim opens up on the night, having the unpronounceable Nolti Nan Gana Nan Nolta pulled out on the last hour: the bass player is metalcore-aggressive, flicking about a long fringe that has such an unmistakable French air to it. Tom on the other hand looks all Svartidaudi/MGLA in his armor-like black leather coat and hood over the head, from which a wild wispy goatee peeks out. He seems a tad nervous, certainly mindful of his organizer’s duties while trying to give a good send-off to his band. The dark, atmospheric intro is supposed to lead us into sudden tremolo riff flurry, when bad luck strikes and another guitar has to be sought in a hurry. When it all starts again, we are offered a blustery set that often highlights the stark sobriety of Scottish BM: with heartfelt inspiration coming from incredibly beautiful landscapes deeply intertwined the poignant history of this unique country, I sincerely hope to see more Scottish black metal bands establishing themselves. (Maybe in a newly independent Scotland - allow me some wishful thinking - following the Scandinavian model, thus changing European history by rattling the destructive arrogance of old western empires - note the plural - that need to be put in check)
We immediately enter into the thick of things with ONE TAIL, ONE HEAD taking the stage, leaving suitable space between their performance and that of Mare, with which they share some personnel. This is well and truly a Viking horde of the Norwegian kind: tonight it obliterates my memories from last year’s Prague Death Fest, as in this murky, smaller venue with scarce lighting, its ritualistic, blood-thirsty savagery becomes all the more authentic and hard-hitting. Jan Even (also of Vemod) appears as the startling primitive-looking madman/shaman I knew from photos of previous OTOH gigs: he sports heavily blackened eyes in the classic guise of the old Norse pillagers, but also a black round mark above the eyebrows contrasting with the blood trickling down from the forehead, and his dark hair (usually gathered behind in a bun) are loosened to form a mass of thick curls. Remarkably, he doubles up as the perfect male incarnation of Hindu goddess Kali; a faithful historical testimony of Viking fascination for the rich and sophisticated Orient.
As for the rest of the band, they are all bathed in fresh blood, and charged with animal power. Front man Luctus seems to be in a (wine-induced?) trance-like state that does not allow for crazed antics: despite his intrinsic physicality, compared to his Prague performance, tonight there is no trace of lustful Iggy ghosts. Instead he conveys a dazed intensity steeped in haunted uneasiness and dejection. Yet, OTOH’s performance unabashedly draws its primordial power from pure testosterone, differentiating it from the rest of Nidrosian bands, such as Vemod, which basks in moonlit metaphysical realms, or Mare, which suggests powerful arcane loftiness. From the feet of the stage I fully perceive wave after wave of raw energy crushing over us: except for the drummer, the entire band stands on the very edge of the stage, thrusting their bodies towards the crowd, eyes transfixed onto the cavernous ceiling above us. We all feel part of this primordial ritual; we feel as if we are metaphorically showered in blood. OTOH taps on deeply elemental and obscure forces and succeed though sheer abandonment and honesty, artistic intention that is shared by all the Nidrosians. Tonight, more than ever, the feeling that this is a tight group of friends and artists pursuing the same meta-artistic goal by capturing different facets of the same big mystery, comes through as crystal clear. All the bands share members and passions in the name of a common goal in the spirit of Nidaros, working together intelligently, enhancing what each individual has to offer: it works, and it is inspiring!
After the slaying ritual, here comes Transcendence, channeled through the inscrutability of the primal feminine spirit… SORTILEGIA represents for some an acquired taste because of the uncompromisingly barren, frosty quality of their bewitching offering. The duo did not manage to floor me in Prague as their sound lacked power from where I was standing, but tonight I am in for a huge treat. I have fallen for Cameron Warrack’s drumming since experiencing Vemod live twice, and finally I am able to enjoy full-on his tremendous skills as I am standing directly in front of the drum kit, which boasts a tremendous sound. In spite of the mesmerizing presence of Koldovstvo, glacial sorceress full of eerie grace, on vocals (I should say bone-chilling haunted screams) and guitar (her cascading tremolo-riffs are as uncompromising as spellbinding), my eyes gorge on Warrack’s relentless work, marveling at the perfection and cleanliness of each hit. During some of the most intense, abyssal blasts ever witnessed, I am sucked into the cold depths of the Void, feeling the mechanical forces of chaos working ruthlessly towards their ultimate goal of becoming/unbecoming. His striking Jesus-like features remain frozen in hypnotic entrancement as the tight tension in his translucent sweat-covered collar muscles and pectorals is marble-like. The primordial simplicity and liberating repetitiveness of the music is simply glorious: Koldovstvo finally walks out, slowly, solemnly and silently as she came, leaving the audience agape. Not so unexpectedly, Sortilegia are the highlight of the night for me.
But only just, because MARE, a band I have never seen live before, promises so much… Candelabra are lit while a profusion of incense dispense swirls of majik and welcome fragrant aroma towards a crowd hanging onto wretched metallic barriers, expectant and still speechless from the previous performance. Eskil Blix, also front man for Vemod, and whose fleeting presence was noted amongst the crowd during the night due to his imposing stature, has a unique style: he looks as if he has come out of a sepia-colored pre-war photograph, and carries himself with an aristocratic aloofness that sets him apart from pretty much anybody else. He has intense stare and a good eye for impeccable clothing, which usually evokes a military style I have always been fond of myself. Tonight, only his tall (huge!) riding boots are all we can glimpse from underneath the spectacular priestly garment he presents himself with on stage: head covered in exotic fashion, he opens his long arms wide apart to create a breathtaking effect, and proceeds to proclaim his first spell. Eskil’s style of performance is highly theatrical, since also in Vemod he likes to introduce each song by poignantly reciting an evocative, revelatory phrase, a sort of esoteric key we are invited to use inwardly as interpreting tool.
Mare is one of the different facets of the Nidrosian artistic gem, perhaps the most esoteric of all, unfolding its explorations through a sort of highly elitist Masonic ritual rather than a raw and primitive one. It evokes arcane atmosphere of early Christian times, not just visually but also through the suggestive chanted choruses, reminding me of the Byzantine, pre-Crusades, era when the old oriental cults were still very much alive within the newly born rituals of the Church. This is finely chiseled black metal which does not lose out on impact; in fact it builds up in a crescendo that leaves all utterly besotted and bewildered. The sense of secrecy and arcane ambiguity is palpable and unsettling, a strange sensation that is deeply rooted with man’s subconscious inclination towards the need to believe in something superior, to trust in a mediator between us and the divine. This dark mare rides the night with dazzling and unfathomable command, a true class act in a way akin to Greek tragedy, telling the never ending story of how inspired charlatans and madmen can be blindly believed by mere mortals. Another stirring art performance that leaves the audience simply incapable to snap out of the collective trance: when the band makes a sudden exit, a few long seconds pass by before a handclap or a cheer can be heard. How marvelous to be subjugated like so…
The first installment of Caledonian Darkness hit the spot big time by gathering some of the most serious and committed artists around today, not relying whatsoever on a strong visual atmosphere achieved through elaborate theatrical props and displays such as banners, lit-up candles, dead creatures, skulls, bones and assorted religious paraphernalia. Here at Audio (in this damp winter night at least) the sense that overpowered all others was the sense of smell, until the Nidrosians smashed through the musty walls and conquered… The bleak, unhealthy situation ultimately revealed itself to be a fitting backdrop for music which SHOULD be uncomfortable, stirring, disgusting, challenging, displacing and elevating. Black metal, largely perceived as a fiercely individual art form, belongs to the wilderness of starry, snow-clad nights or the mossy darkness of a cave, as well as to the forgotten dungeons of a city (proof of a harsh Past) or the solemn walls of a library treasuring ancient books (symbol of our collective Past as cradle to a hopeful Future), because it is music that focuses on unlashing forgotten inner emotions and dreams. It was a privilege to experience performances of such caliber and intensity, and I am convinced that my initial uneasiness enhanced my perceptions, pushing me both physically and psychologically out of my comfort zone, where underground music truly belongs. We should make sure that we experience black metal outside our usual safe boundaries! Many of us seek to achieve these kinds of strong experiences by merging in the unforgiving yet majestic, dizzying beauty of uncontaminated Nature, walking for miles in the wilderness while listening to our MP3 player in complete solitude. But this indoor choral experience challenged the senses in the opposite way: this location did not fill our eyes and lungs with beauty, but with ugliness, and it worked… I don’t know if authenticity of intents and truthfulness towards the art of pushing boundaries and exploring the human condition matters to all extreme music fans, but it certainly matters to me.