Monday, 3 November 2014



A yearly celebration of the Autumn Equinox

Arnhem (NL), 25th October 2014

We all have our own special geo-cultural mythology stemming from our childhood. One of my earliest myths was a land covered in tulips where long haired footballers clad in orange would have the world at their feet without ever ruling it. These days my special affection for The Netherlands' Brabant region  is notorious, yet Arnhem keeps working its magic on me at every visit. Starting from the train journey from Amsterdam Schiphol airport. 

In the soft twilight of a mild autumnal day, the train run for a few kilometres alongside a huge canal. Nowhere else like in this country one is acutely aware of what water means: life. The Dutch resolutely and skilfully pushed the sea back to reclaim a huge part of what they call home, thriving for it, yet remaining at its mercy. With the future rise of the oceans due to climate change, what will it be of this beautiful land? Seeing large cargo and passenger boats, yachts, small boats and wildlife alike share these water arteries today, as if the world was to remain unchanged forever, makes me fall in love with this place over and over again, because it represents humanity in all its determination, faults and frailty. 

Dutch trains are more reliable than a Swiss watch, silent and comfortable. My hour-long journey was relaxing and set the mood for the rest of my Friday evening. My usual hotel put me in a large modern room with wall to wall, floor to ceiling windows from where I could see the old town through tall trees whose yellowy-green leaves seemed reluctant to let go of life, and Luxor Live, Aurora's venue. The room’s colour scheme was also, quite fittingly, rather autumnal, with fresh, vibrant and serene greens. Nature worship all-around! I embraced my contented mood, indulged in a sensational chestnut cake in the hotel restaurant, and later slept like an angel, waiting for the sixth edition of my favourite underground black metal festival…

This year Aurora Infernalis was to be an all-dayer again, a smart decision from veteran organiser, promoter and record label boss Mr. Vlemmings, who aims at exercising strict quality-check control over his own cherished baby. This edition boasted an enviable mix of premieres, debuts and celebrations: Cult of Fire, Svartidaudi and DiabolicuM were playing in The Netherlands for the first time, Dodsengel were playing their first concert outside Norway, Mortuus their first and last ever show, Sapientia were absolute debutants and legendary Windir/Ulcus were bidding farewell while passing the baton to its already established next incarnation, Vreid. Sognametal was in town. Need I say more?…

POSTHUM (support band for the European Sognametal tour) were added to the bill as openers, but sadly the excruciatingly slow flow of the queue prevented me from seeing them. Cloakroom (free!) and AIVI t-shirt purchase duties executed, I was ready for Sweden's SAPIENTIA.

The relatively new band is the brainchild of Hetroertzen’s frontman Frater D, here on drum duties. He and his live musicians set up for a quick soundcheck: a generous bunch of incense sticks were lit up at the base of the raised kit, while two music stands were placed at the sides of the stage, carrying lyric sheets. 
The bass player and guitarist wore Venetian carnival type of masks over the eyes and dapper black tail-coats over white shirts and ties. The guitarist in particular truly looked like a gentleman from the Romantic era, with an elegant silk scarf tied around a high collared shirt, which sleeves ended in beautiful frills amply protruding from the coat. His long blond hair was aptly tied in a ponytail and a pair of moustache conferred a final touch of class. 

If look-wise they certainly made an effort, musically Sapientia were a little disappointing. While the debut album “Through the First Sphere of Saturnus" sounds extremely intriguing, live it was all too often rather tentative and lacklustre: the eclectic singing was not up to scratch and the large majority of the set failed to engage, except from sporadic flashes where the attention was drawn towards the interesting blend of ritualistic and dissonant atmosphere and unorthodox drumming. I expected more from Sapientia, if only on the back of the pedigree involved: while I am confident the upcoming new album will be quite unique and interesting, as a live act they need to get tighter. To make things worse, the band that followed was absolutely on the money on all fronts…

CULT OF FIRE have been personal favourites of mine since their debut album “Triumvirát”, but my admiration and enthusiasm grew exponentially after witnessing their eye-catching live show at Prague Death Mass in 2013, so much so that for AIVI I was proudly wearing that unforgettable event’s t-shirt in their honour. With their stunning मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान release they also happened to approach a subject that is dear to my heart, having explored India’s esoteric traditions and art for many years. 

I had been wondering whether the band would move away visually from the striking and unique Penitent look to full-on Hindu regalia, but I was very happy the trademark image was retained; a photographer’s dream if there is one! I have always found it truly remarkable that even the drummer is happy to wear on stage the hugely tall, pointed hood and the long robes: can you imagine the heat, not to mention the continuous balancing act, during the set? On the night Tom Coroner was being substituted, due to injury, by Jirka Zajic of excellent death metal band Heaving Earth, and the guy was sensational: composed and effortlessly fluent, he sat underneath his hat and robes like a statue, solely relying on his wrist action. The set was predominantly driven by mid-pace rhythmics, but even during the few blasts, which lifted the energy levels higher just in the right places at the right time, Jirka remained completely relaxed and poised: a treat to watch! 

The whole band is musically superior to most and very tight, and the fact that they go a long way to offer a unique and thoroughly enjoyable visual spectacle makes them stand out within the underground and far beyond. Given the quality and completeness of their dark musical offerings, which span from fiery intensity to goddamn catchiness, this band could easily be the next mainstream media darling due to their unquestionable large audience appeal so, as worshipper of the loftiest elitist realms, I have to thank Shiva the Destroyer for keeping them firmly anchored to the underground ethos! 

The gig was simply perfect in every way, ending on a tremendous high with the wonderful काली मां sending shivers down the spine, as the whole audience chanted along the mantra-like chorus. If you have never caught COF live, do not wait for them to come to you, save your goddamn money and fly to one of the carefully hand-picked European events they chose to appear at: you will not regret it. 

MORTUUS were on many attendees’ top list and one of the juiciest exclusives for AIVI. Through their 2007 masterpiece “De Contemplanda Morte (…)” and a good new album out this year, the Swedish band has undoubtedly achieved cult status. Although Tehôm is not the most prolific writer, he still possesses a black metal aura that stirs the fans’ imagination. We are all used to see their classic imagery of the early days, but the Mortuus of today look completely detached from the bravado of youth: no corpse paint or blood is necessary to worship Death, short hair and plain dark clothing will perfectly do when the music speaks for itself. 

I somehow suspected that their slowly winding atmospheres, building layer after layer of gloom and misery, would not entirely grab me in this kind of setting: this is intimate, psychological music so if the band had never taken it on stage before perhaps there was a concern that it would not translate the way it is meant to. Just perhaps. But that was my personal perception, since all the fans around me were quite simply going nuts...

Pleasantly engaged in an interesting conversation with some friends, I missed the last of the 3 Swedish bands on the bill, DiabolicuM. I had been looking forward to a shot of their drum machine-driven industrial BM, but I resorted to taking a peek at a few stills from their performance from a friend’s camera while waiting for the next unmissable act. 


SVARTIDAUDI greatly impressed me on stage before, but this AIVI appearance was truly something else, not least because for the first time I was able to hold my front line position without fear of losing a tooth or two... The scourge of Iceland is a mighty force, possibly the only one which can truly deliver an uncompromisingly pure message of cold-blooded hate and evil in a fashion that even Sargeist does not come close to. Flooded in blood-red lights, on the night, they displayed an even higher layer of breathtakingly noxious malevolence: punishing like no-one else musically, and viciously threatening visually (at least on frontman Sturla’s behalf), they were able to break through the ceiling of extreme brutality and become incredibly epic with it. 

Their sound and attitude is glaringly male, therefore the barbarity and abomination they represent with their art inevitably brings to mind the most quintessential, vilest turpitude that the human race is capable of: war in all its ferocity and perversion. Whether they support the enforcement of this archaic survival tool (which, incidentally, is not solely favoured by humans in the natural world) or not, it has to be said that amongst the several truly extreme metal bands that have ravaged the stages in the past decades, this one is simply tremendous. In all their simplicity, they manage to rape your ears and mind effortlessly.

When a storm of such magnitude hits you, it takes something powerful to revive your senses. SOGNAMETAL were just the medicine needed: WINDIR, ULCUS and VREID were to conclude here their European tour with an hour and a half long set of old and new material. 
WINDIR (whose members also played in Ulcus) have a special place in the heart of viking black metal fans for producing some of the most epic and touching classics of the genre up until the poignant passing of its young vocalist Terje “Valfar", who died of hypothermia when caught in a blizzard in 2004. The idea behind the Sognametal tour was to celebrate Valfar’s memory: he would have turned 36 years old this year. 

The evocative word Sognametal of course indicates the geographical origin of the band, Sogndal in Western Norway, but, rather coincidentally, those familiar with the Italian language will inevitably link the term with the verb sognare, which means to dream, adding another dimension to the whole concept. As the recent novella by Ulrike Serowy “Skogtatt” so finely captures (a review of the book will soon materialise), beyond the tragedy of losing a friend, a son and a family member, a true black metaller would recognise in Valfar’s untimely death an event which deeply echoes our spiritual torment, alienation towards the shallowness of society and longing to willingly abandon ourselves in the cold arms of the painfully beautiful and most unforgiving extreme manifestations of nature. A banner with the breathtaking “1184” album cover was aptly on display, something very familiar to us restless souls (incidentally, should you be unfamiliar with Windir, I strongly recommend the purchase of “1184” and “Likferd”). 

Right from the start a special kind of energy was present and the entire crowd was in rapture. It was a pity that the keyboards were little audible from where I stood, but it was still powerful and touching… To prove the affection and great camaraderie amongst the Sognabrigade, Vegard Bakken, Valfar’s brother, was brought in as vocalist, which was a really nice touch. But like every dream, Windir’s set flew past all too quickly. They vacated the stage to come back as VREID, which was fine although not as captivating. Naturally, they fully know that: talents like Valfar are rare and often as short-lived as shooting stars… But these are a nice bunch of people (guitarist Sture Dingsøyrand is especially loved by the fans) who have been producing quality black metal for a long time, and  they fully deserved the crowd’s ovation at the end of the show. And Vegard seemed to appreciate the celebrations from the warmth of a red wine inebriation which, incidentally, never hindered his performance in spite of the utterly precarious equilibrium. Sognametal was a wonderful, genuinely choral experience.

Believe it or not, for me the very best was still to come... In 2013 it was Vemod; this year Aurora Infernalis’ send off was placed in the magick hands of DØDSENGEL! Since the release in 2012 of the double album “Imperator” for the excellent Terratur Possession, which signalled a turning point for the band, the Norwegians have captured the imagination of many an adept of occult black metal for their wildly eclectic, genre-bending, trance-inducing atmospheres. And the utterly amazing split EP with Nightbringer, “Circumambulations of the Solar Inferno”, added to an already enviable body of work. The unbound creativity and unrelinquishing unorthodoxy in their creative approach demanded a live rendition that would live up to such notable efforts. Expectations were extremely high, especially since word from Norway was that Dødsengel’s home shows had impressed what is undoubtedly a rather spoilt audience: so what on earth had Kark and Malach Adonai plotted for AIVI? 

A good part of the local crowd had left already to catch their last train home, when the lights dimmed off to leave us basking in the blazing red light emanating from stunning images of chaotic biblical events on the so far little used back drop screen. Flowing alongside eerie sounds, our eyes were then flooded in deep blueness to follow the unsettling story of crazed dark god worshipping. And so the band made its entrance, clad in black and red robes decorated with magical double pentacles, heads covered in hoods. 

A diminutive Kark, behind a great black mask covering his eyes and forehead, began immediately to engage with the audience through a very captivating kind of miming, while the music began to unfurl slowly, malevolently, for soon exploding with utter devastation. I was fully aware of the great privilege in catching this incredible band at a pivotal moment in their creative and spiritual path. The aura they exuded was that of bold abandonment: their performance was not staged at all, but rather left to emerge free and glorious from the chaos and beauty ensuing from the strong, twisted, displacing ritualism and the magnificent dark psychedelic slant of the music. 

Unlike Cult of Fire, it was not the band, albeit wonderful to behold in their elated, possessed vessel roles, but the combination of the odd power of the music with the backdrop visuals that created all the drama. Once I took my eyes off Kark, I realised that the story unfolding on the screen was there to lift me to another place, and so I shifted to the right end side of the stage to take full view of the entire spectacle… 

The sequence shown was breathtaking and just so representative of what Wyrd’s Flight stands for: the darkest forces of Nature, from the spinning eye of a cyclone to the poisonous gases from an erupting volcano, from the terrifying explosion of a supernova to the cold stillness of the cosmos, shifted before my eyes as reminders of our precarious place within the universe. 

Blazing fire, suffocating smoke, scalding lava, dry deserts and eroded rocks, culminated in shots of mountains of human skulls dissolving into nothingness: we had come in full circle, beginning and end becoming one, as I recalled my first thought when beholding one of the old human skulls on display for the Cult of Fire set: that was once the receptacle of the essence of a living human being like us, someone who loved, strived for something, learned… 

After this performance, Dødsengel confirmed themselves to be the most complete and exciting new force daring to push black metal forward and upwards by catapulting it into something truly bewildering: the array of this band's influences are alien to the purist idea of black metal itself, as they are steeped in primordial psychedelia and vintage occult and experimental rock. Clearly the propulsive force that creates such a wondrous sonic and visual experience, which by magic transforms the ancient into avant-garde (as the serpent, once again, bites its tail), is a powerful sense of free-will and trust in the forces that raise from within. The magick of instinctual creation manifests itself as an unstoppable avalanche of all things unfathomable, and this is exactly where our short stint of being becomes worthwhile: Angels of Death we all are but, ultimately, only the few can fly to the skies while still inhabiting the flesh.

AIVI was a unique and unforgettable event: it is rare to find a festival so uncompromisingly, consistently great. Aurora Infernalis must be saluted as one of the few select independent events that are carefully and enthusiastically organised by music fans for those who want to experience music as a deeply personal journey. Throughout the years AI has called upon the bands who would go on shaping the future of underground black metal and beyond. May it continue to do so for a long time to come... But if you missed it again, be warned: the VII October ritual will  be a two-day event, and it will totally kill.

More AIVI photos can be seen here:

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