Monday, 15 April 2013

Live Review #002: North of the Wall Festival; Holocaust et. al.

I printed myself a map on the morning of North of the Wall Festival, and headed off merrily for ten solid hours of heavy metal of almost every conceivable sub-genre from the Scottish metal scene. I got about two thirds of the way there to find that the map ran out a reasonable distance before the journey did. Eventually, after finding other people in metal-shirts, and aiming for the most studenty looking thing on the horizon, I found myself at the venue - the Queen Margret Union. As it turns out, the Union has a great stage area, both more expansive and professional feeling than I'd perhaps expected.

The bar didn't have Guinness.

...Dragon Soop is an interesting beverage, sort of Buckfast crossed with Christmas wrapping-paper, and with the ability to double the number of words you can produce per second, while simultaneously halving the meaningful content thereof. It is, one might say, not unlike having your cognitive faculties compressed, by a vice, into a furry cube. Consequently, while relatively coherent, and for the most part lucid, my recollection and analysis of most of North of the Wall Festival were memorised to be written up later with a degree of necessarily yielding to the bright green concoction slowly turning my brain-cells into sour apple flavoured compost. Anyway - onwards!

At about 2:10pm, the sun was warm, and high in the sky; somewhere not far off, a cheerful jogger swiftly passes a young couple eating sandwiches on a sun-soaked park bench. In the Queen Margret Union, it is dingy; thick black curtains keep the sunlight at bay, and a growing throng of people have gathered to watch the first act, Common Gods take to the stage. The crowd have the cheery, excited optimism signature to the small demographic who have beer at two in the afternoon, but aren't homeless. Common Gods play a diverse set of modern, melodic-death-groovy-something or other, but lose some of the shine of their first track due to the venue sound not quite being perfected yet, Nonetheless, in the ensuing songs, including a well received Amon Amarth cover, the band do what an opening band is meant to do; they transform you from the sleepy person who walked into the venue, into the metal-head who is at the gig. In my mind, the band did a great job of showing how well a cover-song can connect with the audience, and the gradual improvement of the sound mixing over their set certainly helped to draw the audience further and further into the festival's atmosphere.

Next up were woad-smeared, or rather, blue-body-paint-that-someone-procured-from-a-corner-shop-smeared folk metal outfit Norderobring, who play keyboard laden Celtic-themed songs about "beating the shit out of English people". I'm certainly not a nationalist - in fact, I couldn't care less about Scottish pride or nationalism, but in any location in Scotland whatsoever, the mention of "beating-up-English-people" does something primal to the enthusiasm; it makes you want to grow a beard, ride to war with a deep-fried claymore, and make your accent more absurd than it already is. I've never been Anti-English myself, so I personally sourced my enthusiasm from far more specific instances of bastards I've had to share the atmosphere with over the years, but the tongue-in-cheek roar from the audience certainly took the festival the next level of crowd energy and the beginnings of sobrieties demise. In fact, I'm fairly sure that Norderobring had one of the best turn-outs of the evening, and of that token, were probably the most overtly northern feeling act to be on-stage. The boost which the good sound-mixing, which brought out the keyboard melodies rather well, and the catchy but non-cheesy material of the band brought to the festival certainly upped its momentum.

On third were Farseer, something of an unknown quantity to me having never seen them live before, and made even more unknown for the fact that I don't listen to much power metal. You can usually tell when a band, as a collective, are very much Iron Maiden fans, and aside from the fact that the band tastefully and tightly covered Wrathchild in tribute to the late, great Clive Burr, the band were also very reminiscent of 'Maiden in their own material, and indeed in their stage-idiosyncrasies. One thing which I particularly took from Farseer, and something which would prepare me for the further power-metal to come was making me realise that power-metal is more than music - it is a spectacle, and Farseer managed to feel worth watching, as well as worth listening to. While some of the ideosyncracies of their music were a little veiled by the sound, and slightly more so by my standing way over to one side of the venue, I found Farseer to be a highly enjoyable band, certainly beating my expectations and general mild mistrust of power-metal. While I can't claim to have enjoyed them to the extent of remembering their songs particularly, I can safely say they put on a solid show.

Atragon played. I'd not seen them in a couple of weeks, however, and beyond that, they'd shaken up their set-list a little, which rendered them fairly fresh once again. Their live-show prevalence does make me wonder if I'll able to write a live-review without them in it, without taking great lengths to leave the country. I digress.  It was nice to see that their older material was still bearing up well amongst their newer, and perhaps slightly more agile material. Their position on the line-up worked quite well from a balance point of view, as it was refreshing to have something of a lower tempo floating around for a while. On top of their placement, the band certainly manage to draw a crowd, and bring the second wind out of those already present - a renewed enthusiasm crept into my somewhat merry-psyche, and I can safely say that my first proper head-banding occurred in Atragon's set, namely their near-quarter of an hour strangling, stoner doom behemoth of a radio single; Jesus Wept, which I can well imagine is what the non-doom-fans were thinking, or if not, were certainly thinking by the time Headless Cross finished. Ultimately, compared to some of the bands in the line-up, Atragon possess an overt air of potential, and hopefully the creative vision to do it. At the very least, a post promoting them to you will adhere to a Facebook newsfeed somewhere near you, like a vigorously thrown slice of ham on a dry whiteboard.

I quite like Headless Kross, but I'll always marvel at just how long their sets feel. I've never been to a show where the band didn't make their set-time feel about three times what it actually was. Civilisations rose and fell, mountains crumbled into the sea, and skeletons became fossils over the course of the band's set. Fortunately, the sluggish, intense, sludgy doom-metal that the band create fits such an image extremely well. I stood, letting waves of chunky, and fairly minimalist doomy riff-work, played at a volume as loud as the equipment present would allow,  wash over me, lamenting that I wasn't quite sober enough to think of anything catchy to say about the band for when I wrote the review later. Headless Kross had among the longest songs and slowest tempos of the night, which is certainly fine by me; someone who enjoys doom in most of its forms, but I can well imagine that the back-to-back chord and sustain assault of Atragon and Headless Kross might have felt a little bit too much for the faster-music enthusiast.

A lot of people seemed to excuse themselves for a particularly long piss when Diementia took to the stage. I'm not sure why, in all honesty they sounded fine to me; thrashy death metal, with hints of the usual seasoning; bits of Slayer style material scattered very liberally throughout their songs. One downfall of the set was the drum-sound - the drummer was fairly competent, albeit a little unadventurous, but the drum-microphones did a dreary job of capturing the double-kick, resulting in the tempo feeling very wrong for more or less the entire set. What should have been rocketing through the speakers instead came across sometimes as a plodding, 4/4 beat, and while, granted, sometimes it was, a lot of it seemed a technical failing, not a musical one. Despite the percussive troubles, I had a good time watching Diementia's set, and the band felt quite solid. A little thin, at times, but nonetheless satisfactory.

Maelstrom share their name with twenty six other metal bands world-wide, but as far as I'm concerned, don't sound generic in the slightest. I'd only ever seen the band before on a fairly small stage, but they seemed to have no problems in filling this venue's stage with their presence. The band managed to bring the crowd back somewhat with their energetic blend of progressive, keyboard-laced black-metal. Maelstrom do an interesting job of bringing together cold, austere and beautiful majesty in the black metal, whilst remaining energetic and very conducive to head-banging, which a lot of black-metal isn't, at least, not to such an extent. They're also the sort of band who really join in on the act of letting the music move them, and at one point, even the keyboard player was head-banging, having balanced their keyboard precariously on its end. The sound-mixing gods smiled upon Maelstrom, and gifted them with one of the best mixes of the evening, with the keyboard soaring high amongst the rolling black-metal thunder. Also with regards to the forces back-stage manifesting themselves, it was, I think, during Maelstroms set that someone backstage worked out how to make the lighting work properly, and soon colourful shapes were floating across the backdrop, making things slightly more hypnotic and dynamic, which complemented the atmospheric leanings of the band well, and doubtless made the audience sway within the music, side to side, a little more.

Talking of brightly coloured lights, Aberdonian power metal band Ascension took to the stage. Having once lived for over a decade in Aberdeenshire, I'm bound by the mysterious Doric occult forces which seep from the radioactive buildings up there not to make any sheep-shagger jokes about the band. As is the remit of a power-metal band, it was probably more likely to be unicorns anyway. Earlier in this review, I described power-metal as a spectacle, and Ascension certainly tapped into that element of the genre - energetic and dynamic on stage, varied, and ferociously tight and technical, they were both extremely fun, euphoric and manic to listen to, but also to watch. Ascension didn't so much get up on stage and play their instruments - they got up on stage and put on a show, with a set of both blistering instrumental material, during which the vocalist went to drink something, and songs in which he showcased splendid power-metal vocals indeed, namely the kind of falsetto which I'd have to be in an industrial accident to aquire. Of all of the bands that played that evening, Ascension felt like one of the most professional.

Scordatura are probably one of the more renowned modern death-metal acts in Scotland now, and as far as I know, they've had something of a meteoric rise to prominence. This time around, they were the only band on the bill to manage to instigate a pit. While indeed, Scordatura are one of those bands who explicitly ask for pits as opposed to allowing them to naturally arise, the music they play, combined with the suggestion really makes you feel that moshing is probably the best thing to be doing anyway - it doesn't feel forced. So absorbed was I, firstly with entering the pit, and secondly with bending my glasses back into the right shape afterwards, that apparently I was fairly oblivious to the guest appearance of ex-Cerebral Bore vocalist Som Pluijmers during the band's set. In fact, I didn't find out until after the festival ended and somebody outside told me that that was who it was, which is rather suggestive of the fact that my skills of paying attention range somewhere between quite shit, and very shit. Certainly one of those "Oh, that's who it was" moments. The band played a fairly normal set aside from that, although fortunately, even an average Scordatura set is a good one indeed, and while by this point some of the less committed festival goers had left for buses, trains, car-key parties or the long walk home, the band managed to conjure as much energy as possible out of the crowd. 

There are few men I've encountered who sound more piratical than Achren's front-man. Whether or not he means to, I do not know, but I'm fairly certain the band don't sing sea shanties, although at one point he looked over the audience and enquired with words to the effect of "does anybody like helecopters?", so maybe they sing about that.  I could very well have imagined it, but I'll mention it just in case. Whatever the truth of the matter, Achren provided the evening's contingent of big gruff hairy gentlemen, who play big gruff hairy thrashy-black-death-metal-type-stuff. The bassist from smashed his instrument on stage at the end, as the numerous people walking around holding bits of it afterwards would testify, which I think safely lands the band in the position of being quite rock n' roll. Instrument destruction aside, Achren succeed in being savage and a bit frenzied in their music, but at the same time carrying a reasonable amount of atmosphere, which came through quite well. Their set was one of the more percussive and energetic of the evening, and knackered as I was from Scordatura, I think I managed to keep my head nodding for most of it, before retiring to a chair somewhere to try and reverse-engineer the drunkenness with the use of red-bull and occasional exclamations of "Oh Christ I'm fucked". At some point I had a fairly haphazard "Yaaas, Fuckin' Aberdeen" conversation with the singer from Ascension.

By the time Holocaust came on, my legs were falling off, but on the plus side, I was reintroducing myself to the sensation of being not drunk. I'm a real enthusiast for buying physical copies of band's albums, and with a lot of Holocaust's material seemingly being very hard to find, I'd not listened to as much of the band's music as I would have liked. Nonetheless, the bands headlining position was both an exceptionally good end to the evening, and an exceptional show in it's own right - one which will probably stay with me for a long time. The band worked relentlessly through a hefty set of the band's classics, a good number of them mid-to-high tempo NWOBHM anthems with a real sense of old-school swagger and energy, the sort of energy which few musicians of their age can conjure with quite such an inspiring earnestness. While a lot of the crowd has been steadily leaving for home over the hours leading up to Holocaust's set, there remained a reasonable number, with their exuberance and enthusiasm perfectly sufficient to compensate for everyone who had already left. As much as the songs, the attitude of the front-man, John Mortimer really impacted me; he is, quite evidently, someone who has always cared about heavy metal - in fact, he was wearing a Desaster t-shirt, which struck me as unusual in the best possible way; how many musicians from the NWOBHM still care enough about heavy metal to sport a black-thrash t-shirt? I can't remember word for word exactly what he said, but when introducing the track "Heavy Metal Mania", he said words to this effect; "I wrote this song when I was 15. I'm almost 50 now, but the meaning is still the same". A few sentences later, he added words to the effect of; "It's about this music which we love; heavy metal. It'll be there when I die". 

If, when I'm that age, I can say something similar, I'll be happy indeed.

I don't think there was a single person leaving the venue when it was all over who didn't
consider it to have been absolutely worth it. I hope this time was successful enough to establish further such events.