Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Notes on Noctis

FRIDAY, September 20th


Before going into this festival, the sixth and allegedly final Noctis, I figured that with the likes of Revenge and Blasphemy headlining Friday, there was going to be no chance that Saturday could possibly rival it. While my figuring turned out to be right in the end, it was not so much the RBC legions that set the bar so impossibly high, but the two prior bands who dominate my remembering as they dominated wide swathes of the audience that night.

Pagan Altar were simply my favourite act of the entire weekend. From the perfect balance of pompous showman and serious storyteller exuded by old man Terry Jones to the impeccably medieval atmosphere emanating from their highly distinct musical personality, Pagan Altar actualized and ritualized a moment of mythic grandeur with forcefully theatrical convictions. Approaching the Epic as nearly as can be expected from any metal band, Pagan Altar were demonstrably unique (Jones' vocals are certainly 'love or hate'), musically incisive and clear, and positively apocalyptic in their overall dynamic; when Jones was wailing ominously during 'The Black Mass', 'This is the age, the age of Satan', I was inwardly confident that he was actually heralding a new era, the rise of Antichrist or some other malignant beastie.

As things stand, the Pagan Altar vocalist was merely announcing the commencement (for me at least) of Noctis 666, historically Canada's finest music event West of Quebec. On a more personal note, Pagan Altar were particularly memorable in that, after they were done, this other patron gave me one of Deano's drumsticks he had cast into the crowd, saying that, given my rambunctious singing along and the obvious physical enthusiasm I had shown during their set, I clearly liked Pagan Altar more than he did, and therefore merited the memoir.


Seeing as I had already witnessed the Gorguts live performance at a previous festival, I had no right to be surprised by how good, how absurdly powerful their show is - but I was, I was blown away for a second time by a band that I honestly hardly ever listen to. The general rule with the more technically inclined bands is that their concert often suffers for it, with the players almost exclusively devoted to higher levels of concentration. This is not the case with Gorguts, who recruit that intense focus and elaborate, articulate instrumentation into a collective power that is altogether simple in its singular, direct assault. The music immediately comes across as at once frenzied, brutal, disorderly, and anarchic, but it is the firm structure underlying the swarming turbulence that provides the violence with that necessary law & order; metaphorically speaking, the infinite pieces of this universe seem to be governed by deranged demagogues, subsisting in a vacuum of meaning, but in reality it is either eventually normalized into patterns and persists in aeternum or it perishes altogether. That is Gorguts.

Despite being cut short due to unfortunate time constraints, this was truly a phenomenal show, an admonishing reminder of the strength of these French-Canadian stalwarts that I should not have needed nor will need again.


Compared to the precise and pristine clarity of the previous act, Revenge sounded like the interior of a Kriegsmarine U-boat being bombarded by the depth charges of an hunting destroyer. And that is exactly what a Revenge ritual is, really, the motivated reconstruction of the modern battlefield; the explosive weaponry, the shattered husk of humanity are retrieved visually and aurally through the demonically-inspired percussion of James Read, wreathed in smoke, and his two attacking minions in the vanguard. While I would have loved seeing Revenge with Pete Helmkamp still at the helm, they have actually done their best work following his departure, and the new songs they performed must have improved their live set considerably, giving it more balance and individuality after the rather formulaic albums following Triumph.Genocide.Antichrist. There were complaints voiced toward the sound guys, that Revenge were not loud enough, but that was immaterial for me; the music itself is comprised of an inherent loudness that mastered the room. They also covered 'Equimanthorn', which was a lovely touch.


Making their faithful following travel hundreds of kilometres to an overgrown prairie town when they should be playing Vancouver at least once every two or three years, Blasphemy bore the brunt of the Friday night's collective expectations (even if there seemed to be many cowards leaving after Gorguts). I later realized that perhaps the sound guys were smarter than we gave them credit for, lowering Revenge's sound in order to build up more effectively to the Blasphemy colossus. In any case, Revenge proved to be the perfect foreplay to the climactic release of the main event, the more 'limbre', percussively-oriented descendant tonally setting the stage for their behemoth forebears to complete the devastation.

While their being old and a bit heavier now prohibits them from athletic amounts of onstage movement (I think Caller of Storms might have nodded a couple of times), the prevailing aura is as vibrant and virile as ever. The audience was witness to a monumental demonstration of compelling chaos; primordial energies were bound up and unleashed, tempestuous tyrants of primal sound were lords of the night. The chaotic element was not organized and sublimated into a coherent unit like an Arctic trainer might master his impetuous pups into disciplined sled-dogs; the chaos that Blasphemy 'organized' was loosely gathered and then conveyed in a vague, general direction, rather like the warlords of old would goad their war elephants into battle, hoping that they might trample about and do more damage to the enemy than their own troops. This is the distinct, lasting impression that Blasphemy made on me that night, the image of an inexorable, semi-armoured monster of an animal gone berzerk in the wildness of war.

Finally, there was a more mundane feud ongoing between Blasphemy and the powers that be over the curfew the University imposed on (presumably) any concert; they were not allowed to play beyond midnight, meaning they were forced to cut out their intros and outros, and at least a couple other tracks.  Being irresponsibly drunk by this point, I was unconcerned, and simply elated by the reality that I finally got to experience BLASPHEMY.

SATURDAY, September 21st


Again skipping the first few bands (would not have minded seeing Witch Mountain though), we arrived in time to see one of the elite thrash metal bands from the eighties, who just happened to fulfil two of the major themes of this year's Noctis: being old and Canadian. Sacrifice played a fluent set, unveiling a thick volume of coarse, riveting riffs that carried them forward. Every song was constructed around these propulsive guitar lines; the newer songs, too, fit in seamlessly with their classics, such as 'Re-Animation', which thoroughly blitzed the crowd at the show's conclusion. The lead guitarist and the drummer seemed exceedingly happy to be there – the latter in particular wore a stupid grin for virtually their entire forty minutes. Full credit to them.


The first time that I saw Possessed live left me fairly disappointed due to a mistaken bias that I see no need to repeat here (inside joke, you get it or you don't). Being relieved of this error, I was all ready to enjoy Possessed like it was my first time seeing them, and I was rewarded for it. Selecting heavily from Seven Churches, their magnum opus and a cornerstone of all death metal, Possessed were absolutely crushing, delivering all of the potent and molten madness that they are known for in the space of less than an hour. I remarked to my friend that I never truly saw Slayer play since my only time seeing them was in the cavernous BC Place, and not in even the most remotely intimate venue. Well, experiencing Possessed play songs like 'The Exorcist', 'Fallen Angel', and 'Death Metal' is most likely the next best thing considering the strong link between Possessed and early Slayer, a link that was only reinforced by the screaming intensity with which Possessed performed their material. The fact that the vocalist (who was also grinning stupidly the whole time) was clearly hammered only added to the concert's overall joviality; every one we spoke to thereafter was delighted and pleasantly surprised by Possessed.


As Girlschool were up next, I doubled my beer order and waited them out (if I received a loonie every time someone mentioned 'like Motorhead played by women' I wouldn't have had to pay for this trip). Certainly the band that I was looking forward to the most on Saturday, Candlemass professed an air of class and confidence from the start; similar to the previous day's Pagan Altar, Candlemass achieved an atmosphere that expressed an ancient attitude, a Gothic recreation of oral storytelling. Utilizing much of their old catalogue for their setlist, we got to experience beautiful renditions of songs like 'Under The Oak', 'Solitude', and 'At the Gallows End' conveyed with the same kind of charm and aged sagacity that we praised Pagan Altar for; where Candlemass differentiated themselves was in their more sombre, more refined tonal approach and in their more serious aesthetic, lyrical dimensions. The same general idea of an old man telling an epic story was there; the difference resided in that Candlemass had a moral to that story, a resonant message that was more thought-provoking and pathetic, while Pagan Altar were quite content being the harbingers of doom, regardless of good or evil.

Ousting the previous vocalist Robert Lowe for an insufficiently charismatic live presence, Candlemass have more than solved that in (again) recruiting experienced journeyman Mats Leven, a natural leader who was persuasively engaging, and whose vocals were unfailingly dominant, up to the high standard set by the singing on any Candlemass album; he even did a bit of the Messiah stomp during 'Bewitched', delighting the crowd thereby. The music was tight, clearly expressed, and again evocative of a medieval perspective, Leven's semi-operatic, exaggerated intonations combining with the profoundly melodic and visceral guitar lines to enforce a distinctly dramatic presentation, like a troupe of tragic actors performing at a high European castle. That I saw bassist Leif Edling sipping at a glass of red wine only enhances my conviction that Candlemass are indeed the most Catholic band in metal.


Although Carcass were inarguably the chief draw for the majority of patrons at the event, they were honestly the least of the eight bands reviewed here that I was looking forward to. Still, they played a good set, though expectantly far too reliant on the post-Necroticism portions of their discography. The frontman Jeff Walker established a good rapport with the audience, telling jokes and generally cutting an amusing figure as he went through some decent stage banter. 'Corporeal Jigsaw Quandary' was undoubtedly the highlight of the Carcass act, for both myself and the audience if their explosive reaction to the first notes are anything to go by. It looked like they also had to cut out at least one track due to that curfew again, because, you know, students living in dormitories have to go to bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday nights.


Because I like lists & clarity here is a ranking of how I deem the weekend's performers overall

1. Pagan Altar
2. Candlemass
3. Blasphemy
4. Gorguts
5. Revenge
6. Possessed
7. Sacrifice
8. Carcass

One thing that once again impresses me about the metal community is how there are no rigid divides between artist and fan, no barrier that separates us like the one that develops when a musical icon attains celebrity status. At this level, everyone there is a fellow supporter, regardless of whether he plays the leading role for the headlining band the next night or not; we could hang out with members of the bands without too much nervousness on one end or hubris on the other; my friend could spill her breakfast on Blasphemy's Caller of Storms and not have to worry about security swarming her or a viral youtube video; we could fraternally witness Terry Jones from Pagan Altar confusing himself over our magical Canadian maple syrup, figuring it to be some kind of HP sauce like any Englishman would. At this level, there are no untouchable celebrities, just fellow fans of the music and potential friends.

On the other hand, however, I was reminded of all the deficiencies I perceive in the metal community, particularly after Saturday's festivities were finished, and I was exhausted in every possible way by the degradation I had immersed myself in. From guys sprawled out on the bathroom floor trying to puke to the vomit itself reeking the train back to Calgary proper, in addition to the general lack of hygiene and good taste (somebody asked me how much my haircut cost, which must be a kind of insult because it made even less sense as a compliment considering the long-haired greaser who asked me), I was physically revolted, and reminded of the filthy crusties who went around the venue drinking the last drops from the empty beer cans littered everywhere. Then there was the social activist for global Satanism who hurled a burning Bible from his hotel room onto the pool deck where we were gathered (some were swimming) at ~4 AM. I suppose that it was for these reasons and my general state of exhaustion and post-drunkenness that led Chris ('Vermin') from Revenge to say to me, 'you look like you're saying to yourself, “I hate every one of these fuckers”.' It is more than slightly frightening that a longstanding member of one of the most misanthropic musical genres around can say that about me, but I daresay that in that moment he was more right than not.

Anyway, I was there for the music, and that was more than rewarding in itself. A real shame that this could very well be the final Noctis, as Vancouver is starved enough as it is for quality live music, and now we are being deprived of one our our key semi-local outlets for incoming bands of the kind of heavy calibre that we were privy to on this gloriously dark weekend. But it was certainly good while it lasted, and in the future may these quick notes prove to be strong enough to incite positive images where my memory fails.