Thursday, 23 October 2014

FEN: The Timeless Flaws and Rituals of Humanity

FEN hold a very special place within the turbulent skies Wyrd's Flight likes to explore. I am especially excited to see them performing soon at DAMNATION festival as part of a great line-up (1st November, Leeds; live report coming up!), while a review of their  marvellous new work "Carrion Skies" is also nicely brewing away... 

In the meantime, I am delighted to offer an interesting interview by Andreas Schiffmann with The Watcher. 
Straight-talking as ever, and damn pleasurable to read, Frank provides a wonderful insight on the new album, whilst reiterating the band's artistic message within the varied and still expanding black metal horizons. 

First of all, when setting off to write the new album, what did you want to do differently in comparison to "Dustwalker"?

As always, we wanted to move forward first by looking back at what we’d already achieved and assessing our albums as a whole before defining the path ahead. Where next to go? What avenues had we not yet explored? As a band, we were quite satisfied with how the last album turned out but as always, there’s the nagging sensation that there is more to be done, greater things to be achieved, avenues of expression as yet explored. 

We’d started some preliminary writing prior to the tour with Agalloch in 2013 and upon our return, our intensions had been crystallised – we wanted to write a metal album. We felt that the diffuse nature of ‘post’ black metal had become somewhat suffocating for the genre and that we wanted to reconnect with the essence of extreme metal at the core of what we had originally set out to do when the band was originally formed back in 2006. This isn’t to discredit our work on ‘Dustwalker’ at all – far from it – but we wanted to make the next album harder, darker, more intense, both conceptually and musically. Our goal ultimately was to describe themes of blood and earth, sacrifice and worship, fear and death, through a heavier musical approach. 

How does the album title work as an overall "motto"? What could "carrion skies" actually be?

It took a while for the album title to arrive this time as we really wanted something to fully embody the themes therein. ‘Dustwalker’ was a dreamier record focussing on internal reflections of existentialism – with all of the associated spiritual baggage that entails! This album is more ‘external’ in scope – looking outwards as opposed to inwards - and the title needed to embody this.  

The actual words themselves are a fusion of some of the more powerful images from the first song, ‘Our Names Written in Embers’ which deals with the concept of the human impulse for conflict and the meaningless of such conflicts when set against the passage of time. ‘Carrion Skies’ suggests a blood-drenched prophecy, the metaphorical gathering of stormclouds on distant horizons, smoke filling the sky and the promise of turmoil to come. 

You have worked with Esoteric's Greg Chandler this time; what could he over the band which it was previously lacking?

Again, we wanted to do something different. All of our releases up until now have been self-recorded/mixed/produced. As much as I have been satisfied with the results, there’s always a danger of slipping into your comfort zone in such circumstances – we therefore agreed that working with an external producer would be another step towards crafting something that progresses Fen as a band.

I have always said in the past that I have been reluctant to bring in an ‘outside’ influence to the Fen recording process as I think the way that this band works is quite unique – nevertheless, if it is the right person with the right approach, I am happy to have them on board. After several discussions (and having met him several times when playing shows with Esoteric), it became clear that Greg is very much the ‘right’ person. He instinctively – and swiftly – understood what we were trying to achieve and really bought into our approach. Not only that, he demonstrated a real professionalism and presented an incredible work ethic. Some of the tracking days were 12-13 hours long – hard, tiring sessions but his commitment was without question. Being in an established working band himself, he understands the picture from both sides of the mixing desk which is invaluable. 

I think the results speak for themselves – this record is the most focussed ‘complete’ album we have yet done, a testament I feel to the hard work and intensity of the sessions that created it. 

What I find noteworthy was the diversity of guitar tones; can we consider that experimentation, and where do these impulses come from?

Thanks for the comments and its true we did spend a lot of time experimenting with various guitar (and bass) sounds on this album. For my part, I spent the first few months of 2014 upgrading my guitar setup considerably – new pickups, a new amp, some new effects – and given that Greg is also a bit of a guitar pedal obsessive, we did spend a lot of time trying out different delays, reverbs, tones, all in the quest for texture and ambience. 

This is very important to me. I have been playing guitar for twenty years now and it’s clear I will never be a ‘technical’ player in the classic sense - however what I do strive to achieve is to describe an atmosphere with the guitar, an all-encompassing soundscape. The sound of the guitar can be just as important as the riffs/chords/notes being played in delivering the message or dynamic of a particular song. 

It isn’t just ‘turning everything on to 10’ and hoping for the best however – sometimes, it can be really pulling back on the layers, stripping things back to their most simple state to allow a core tone to ‘breathe’. The rhythm guitar tracks on the album for example are just the amp itself running completely dry – we experimented with a variety of boost pedals, overdrives and other things but in the end, the tone of the amp worked perfectly and we ended up with keeping it as simple as possible. 

So yes, continuing to explore a diversity of tones and guitar ambiences will be an ongoing part of the Fen sound – even (as with ‘Carrion Skies’) when working towards a more ‘extreme’ take on our sound, this is a big consideration. 

Can we understand the twopartite 'Our Names Written In Embers' as a call to war with the actual battle and its maybe bitter aftermath?

That’s it – the irrepressible human impulse for conflict, sorrowful reflection, resolution to avoid it in future and the inevitability of it returning once the pain and the lessons fade with time. This feels even more topical than when it was originally written (the ghastly administration running our country beats the drums of war once again it seems) but for me, this just lends further weight and vindication to the central theme of this song. 

‘…Embers’ is a hugely important song for us – easily the longest and most involved piece that we have yet created, it also embraces some of our most discordant and intense moments to date. For this, we had to undertake a lyrical approach that was appropriate to accompany this and a study of war – of the mindset, emotions, senses and ultimately, the thinking of humanity behind it – dovetailed suitably with the more apocalyptic sounds of the song itself. Strong ideas roil within such a piece – triumph, exultation and hope giving way to desolation, despair and anguish. As it’s the opening song of the album, I think it sets the tone perfectly and indeed, the ‘Carrion Skies’ of the album title are almost directly taken from the lyrics of this piece. After all, when battle is concluded, what remains other than the carrion of the dead and a landscape stained by slaughter? 

'The Dying Stars' also speaks about embers and the "beauty within destruction"; is bellicose subject matter again?

This is more a question relating to humanity’s propensity to romanticise death, destruction and sacrifice. It ties in with the overall themes running throughout the album – this song in particular focuses on the futility of applying notions of beauty to abstract concepts rooted primarily in the illusory or the unknown. More prosaically, it deals with man’s fascination with the night sky and the stars in particular – sidestepping the reality of the face that each star represents a thundering conflagration born of chaos and churning primordial combustion that is heading inexorably towards its own ending.  

Indeed, many of these stars no longer exist – in the time it has taken their light to reach us, their existence has ended, often destroyed in the furious destructive power of a supernova which obliterates everything nearby. Any civilized worlds or lifeforms in the vicinity will have been utterly eradicated – a death-throe that could be considered beautiful to a distant observer but is actually an example of sheer devastation. 

Beauty ultimately is nebulous at best and all worship is rooted in fallacy and illusion – yet it is the human condition to indulge in this futility time and again. 

'The Sentinels' to me seems like a change of tack and is most prominent because of its vocoder(?)-vocals (and maybe the Tom Warrior "ugh!" ;)). How did this one develop? It seems to tell one whole story on its own.

It was Grungyn who wrote this song and performed lead vocals here and therefore, he would be best placed to answer it (although I added the ‘ugh!’ – it seemed to work at that juncture!). He worked on this song very much in isolation so it was pretty much a complete piece when it was presented to the rest of us – though we did have input in terms of arrangements, guitar sounds/textures and so on. It’s one of the more ‘prog’ songs on the album certainly, Grungyn spent a lot of time in the studio working on vocal ideas and layers for this one. 

This song I believe addresses themes of cycles and change, of what remains ever present and what shifts, fades and is renewed through the ages. Specifically this is looking monuments and relics from ancient civilisations, what we know of them and how much remains a mystery. Often the purpose of ancient monuments and the life of the societies that spawned them are only guessed at. It highlights the transient nature of humanity, in that the sentinels of our civilisation my one day be a similarly obtuse and esoteric reminder of an age past. In this, there are links to ‘Gathering the Stones’ – how remembrance and the works of man can fade with time, it is only in naming and legend that memories can endure. 

Given that 'Menhir' is joined to the term 'Supplicant', I was thinking it could be a song about worship, so what, in your eyes, is worthy of praise here?

Nothing. Nothing is worthy of worship and that is the key here. Once again, we are faced with a fundamental failing of the human condition – the compulsion to worship, to supplicate oneself before an ‘other’, to indulge in sacrifice (both of ourselves and of others), to delegate all responsibility in the name of faith. And what remains when the dust settles and the blood has dried? The yoke of slavery – both spiritual and physical – and the empty, unfulfilled legacy of submission that runs throughout generation after generation. 

We shall never learn. ‘Menhir-Supplicant’ speaks of altars of stone, of polytheistic Gods that dwell within the soil or the stars yet the central tenets remain true today – the principles remain, it is just that in 2014, we have altars of silicon or concrete, Gods who dwell in gated mansions controlling the fortunes of nations at the click of a finger, a population sacrificing the very essence of its own humanity in a bid to survive. And as ever, so willing we are to supplicate ourselves before these ever-present totems that only slavery remains. Time shifts and move forwards, yet the rituals are doomed to be repeated again and again. 

'Gathering The Stones' speaks about the endtimes amongst other things, yet seems ambivalent to me in the end, so I do not know what's the outcome of it all; could you shed some light on that?

As I alluded to earlier, ‘Gathering the Stones’ is about remembrance, time and immortality. How all of the works of man will fade with time and the only way that any entity can endure and live on is in myth, legend, stories passed down through millennia. The strongest signifier of identity and individuality is one’s name – we empower a concept and breathe life into it by naming and hence, the link between names, history and immortality is a strong one indeed. Names can live on and it is in the naming – and remembering – that someone or something can become (in a metaphysical sense) eternal. 

This is most clearly referenced in the line ‘to name is to remember – to remember is to summon’, that we give life and validity to something by virtue of its memory. After all, what other validity is there to existence than our own perception of it? Solipsistic this may sound but it is only the phenomena experienced by our consciousness that has any true meaning to ourselves as individuals. 

The conclusion of the song is ambiguous, certainly – memories fade, things are forgotten and reality moves on. The outcome of it all is just that – uncertainty, fading, that humanity ultimately has its own choices to make. 

With all these ancient topics: What can we draw from it all for our lives in the irrefutable present?

That irrefutable though it may be, our present is the past-yet-to-come – the essence of humanity remains unchanging throughout the ages. 

Is it essential for Fen to cling to archaic and nature-related topics? Could you imagine addressing modern issues and even technology in your music?

We do speak of these things – it may be in a metaphorical sense and we don’t address them directly but ultimately (and as referenced above), the flaws and rituals of humanity are in many ways timeless. Worship, sacrifice, conflict, hate, reverence – as applicable to us now as they will have been several thousand years ago.

It is important to make these distinctions clear and I must emphasise strongly that we in Fen are not ‘clinging on’ to ‘archaic’ topics or times rooted in the past. We definitely do not yearn for a return to some form of unspecified historic age of glory, for simpler times of yore or any form of a romanticised past era. For us, that represents escapism, a fantasy based in an idealised depiction of the past. Indeed, such thinking elevates ‘the good old days’ to the status of some kind of heavenly nirvana when all the evidence points to the past being as grim and unpleasant as the ‘modern’ era, as subject to the whims of the rich, powerful and corrupt as we are now. 

This is not our view at all. We have no interest in hiding in escapism or lingering fantasies. The imagery and context of ancient history of course can be powerfully evocative indeed and this is certainly one of the reasons our lyrics and imagery on this album are rooted within this. Nevertheless, the lessons told therein are more fundamental than that – they resonate ever-more strongly within the present to address the struggles that continue to plague us as individuals and societies.  

How important is it for you to be seen within the context of Black Metal as opposed to being an individual entity?

I’m not hugely concerned with how we are perceived, frankly. I do worry about being misunderstood (as does anybody) but as a musician, there’s not really a lot you can do about that really. All you can do is try and communicate as clearly as possible. If an external observer/listener sees fit to bracket us in with the black metal scene, then that is fine – ours is a sound earthed in black metal and indeed, on Carrion Skies, we have endeavoured to reconnect ourselves somewhat with our origins. Yes, there is nothing explicitly Satanic within our lyrical concepts or imagery (so if this is what is necessary for us to be defined as black metal then fine, we are not) – however, my personal definition of black metal is based far more upon a sonic definition than an explicit lyrical/ideological stance and for me, musically at least, Fen is predominantly a black metal band.

But I digress. This debate has been going on for decades now and there is no right or wrong answer, it will continue to rage. Music is a subjective artform first and foremost, all that genre tags allow us to do is to conveniently pigeonhole certain bands who share stylistic and/or ideological similarities. Having Fen associated with black metal is certainly useful for us as I believe we share a number of core stylistic traits with the genre but it isn’t something that I feel a PERSONAL need for. Black metal itself has become so diffuse with numerous interpretations and stylistic branches (depressive/suicidal black metal, industrial black metal, pagan black metal, ambient black metal and so on) that I think that ‘black metal’ itself has become a rather general ‘umbrella’ term as opposed to a definite stylistic signifier. 

The genre's orthodox fraction has been on the rise again for some time now, claiming that you are supposed to be satanic, misanthropic and so on; how much of all that - maybe in an abstract sense - is left within Fen?

Orthodox black metal is just one branch/interpretation of black metal – of course, said proponents would claim to be the ‘truest’ of all but as with ANY participant in ANY genre, they are setting the rules and parameters on via their personal interpretation of said genre. Yes, misanthropy, hatred and Satanism can be said to lie at the very heart of the origins of the second wave of the genre but this is really only an interpretation based on the principles of the early 90s Scandinavian black metal scene. Going back to the first wave bands such as Bathory, Celtic Frost, Venom e.t.c., whilst Satanism clearly featured it was very much more of a hammer horror/cartoonish approach. Sure, Mayhem and their ilk took it one step further but again, how much of this was simply a fa├žade for shock value? After all, let us not forget that Euronymous was a massive Kraftwerk fan. 

It’s a tough one, frankly. The older I get, the more cynical/sceptical I get of bands who purport to be absolutely welded to their ideology – particularly an ideology that is entrenched in hatred, nihilism, destruction and non-metaphorical devil worship. To me, it sounds like an excuse to behave like an idiot, to march around in an attention-seeking and oh-so ‘shocking’ fashion, purporting to chisel away at the foundations of a stagnant ‘Christian’ society whilst actually thrashing around in the very lowliest, primordial tier. It’s pretty pathetic. Yes, there are a dedicated hard-core of orthodox artists who are deadly serious and fully committed to their beliefs (and these will know who they are) but like any scene, there are a vast amount of surface-level pseudo-rockstar poseurs cluttering it up and tarnishing its reputation. 

Fen as an artistic entity does not have much in common with orthodox black metal save for a sincerity of expression and a commitment to the message we are imparting. On ‘Carrion Skies’ we have reconnected with the more traditionally ‘black metal’ elements of our nature so there is great deal of anger present, a sense of futility and abhorrence at the relentless failings of humankind. In that, we are touching upon misanthropy I guess but explored through a different filter from the majority of ‘anti-human’ orthodox black metal. We are not so much ‘anti-human’ (and honestly, who can seriously describe themselves as ‘anti-human’ from the perspective of BEING a human?) as opposed to being in opposition to the fundamental, ongoing failings of the human condition and our frustrated, despairing reflections upon this. 

What can you tell me about the bonus tracks for the wooden box?

It is my understanding that the wooden box edition will be a strictly-limited ‘die-hard’ version of the album. It will be accompanied by a bonus CD containing three tracks. ‘Coffin Soil’ is the first of these and was recorded alongside the album. It is a very long song – over 17 minutes – which features a lot of ambient, improvised instrumentation and atmospherics. There are moments which are almost mantric – hypnotic refrains and drones that build and escalate. 

It was definitely something of an experiment for us and during the recording process, felt very much like it stood apart from the feel of the other songs we were looking at (though I must maintain it does still closely sit side-by-side with the album in my view). It is a dreamier, more obscure piece with lyrics focussing very much on spiritual reflections on death, decay and returning to the earth. Personally speaking, I think it is a real statement and the experimental nature of the noisescapes we utilized on this song is something I would very much like to explore in greater depth in the future. We really indulged ourselves here but I’m personally very pleased with the results of this – that certainly paves the way for future indulgences!

The second song is called ‘Trilithon’ and is a purely instrumental piece of guitar and cello. It is based upon a repeating refrain that I have had written for a long time now – it is incredibly simple and melodic but I feel it is quite evocative, really highlighting the more reflective side of the band. It may well be that this theme is incorporated into future material or at the very least, is deployed live in some fashion as an intro or something. Time will tell. 

The last track is ‘Twilight Descends’, a lengthy song we recorded back in 2009 for a label compilation. This of course harks back to an earlier incarnation of Fen and features our original drummer Theutus with keyboards courtesy of our first synth player Draugluin. I think it’s always important to acknowledge one’s past and whilst we have long since left some of these elements behind, it is still very much a ‘Fen’ song and one that really showcases the more epic side of the band in the earlier days. The recording is a little rough, certainly (it was recorded just after our debut ‘The Malediction Fields’) but I think it has a really interesting crepuscular atmosphere. 

The artwork is very different from the conventional cover fare you get nowadays via Photoshop et al; how was it done, and how does it connect to the overall concept of the album?

As with all of our releases, the artwork was created by our Grungyn (bass/vocals). We all had input into the overall composition and it was important that it embodied the themes addressed on the album without being over-cluttered – nevertheless, it was he who realised these concepts and very much bought it to life. I think it has achieved that original goal – fire, stone and threatening skies, at once ominous and inspiring, charged with ancient energy and the promise of strife to come. 

The main image was hand-painted and then digitally overlaid with textures of stone and earth to fully develop the depth of the piece. So yes, there was some photoshop-esque work involved but it was deployed in a subtle, refined fashion. I am particularly pleased with the ‘fiery’ rendering of the band logo – it’s an interesting presentation of the logo and one that I feel perfectly encapsulates the renewed fires of aggression in the performances on the album. 

The obvious question: what are your next steps now with the album released? Do you just take things as they come, or are you working towards a specific "goal"?

There’s no overall, materialistic goal – we just continue to strive towards making the very best music that we can. As I type, the album hasn’t yet been released yet – once it is, if it is well-received, it will hopefully enable us to play some more live shows. We’ve played in places as far away as Canada and Moscow over the last couple of years and these were excellent experiences – it would be wonderful to get the opportunity play some more gigs like these and/or embark on another tour.

Honestly though, my main drive – and ever-burning impulse – is to continue to forge the best music that I can. Each album that passes, I am pushing myself ever-harder, digging ever-deeper to tap into a near-subconscious creative impulse. After the recording for ‘Carrion Skies’ was completed, I promised myself that I would take some time off from writing for Fen to allow the batteries to recharge and the flames to rekindle – yet already, I have found myself working on new riffs, new ideas, new expressions. It never stops. It is like an addiction.  

Another usual game: name five records you are currently listening to.
It’s something of a mixed bag right now I’m afraid… 
Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry
Disbelief – Infected
Grails – Deep Politics
Judas Priest – Metal Works (1973 – 1993)
Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall

Andreas Schiffmann

Saturday, 11 October 2014


INCUBATE, 15-21 SEPTEMBER 2014, Tilburg (NL)


I woke up with a splitting headache. This was going to be a chilled day after all, enjoying the luxury of leaving the hotel a mere 5 minutes from the first show of the evening: Geryon, namely Krallice's Lev Weinstein and Nicholas McMaster. 
I walked across the square towards Extase in the company of the other Krallice pair, chatting about common acquaintances and good music. As we entered the pub’s narrow corridor leading to the small concert room, I dared asking Mick Barr if he realised that the previous night Krallice had given us a mindblowing mystical experience. He looked completely startled: ”Wow… that’s strange…” I laughed. I am perfectly used to perceiving music in a very powerful and enhanced way, but this time... this time I had not been on my own. 

GERYON took the stage and began to warm up, working their instruments for a quick sound-check. When the lights were turned off, we were treated with a very physical drum and bass lesson of intricate, experimental music which took death metal roots to a far more visceral and austere dimension. Nicholas’ sparse throaty cries felt harsh and lonely within the turbulence of music filled with time-changes and avant-gardness of the starkest, darkest kind, his bass, often atonal and twistedly powerful, filling in what would normally be guitar parts with the ruthlessness of a deadly virus. The drumming coiled nakedly around the ravaged gloom of the meandering bass, making the noise/music almightily physical and coherent in its uneasiness and starkness. Geryon do not deliver “ugliness” and “heaviness” in the same grand, overwhelming way as Portal do: by choosing to remain simply a duo in the first place, they placed themselves in a completely different realm, that of pure experimentalism where the only big theatre is that of human mind and body, expressively exposed for what they are. 

I had to pay my respects to KING BUZZO, aka Roger Osborne, vox/guitar and founding member of The Melvins. The guy is a living legend, and a funny, most likeable person too. Sporting his customary huge afro-like mop and brandishing just an acoustic quitar, he entertained a large crowd at Midi with an energetic and very engaging set, which also included some Melvins material. You could tell that he was not used to take his singer-songwriting dimension to large stages, and he was loving the attention!

I then took a short-cut to the nearby 013, home to many happy Roadburn experiences, to check out some of the artists who played part of an interesting project named Female Pioneers of Electronic Music
In the foyer gentle-looking Danish blonde PUCE MARY was working at her experimental, heavily industrial performance, mesmerising the small crowd gathered around with some truly harsh sounds mixed with a hint of dark ambience. 

In the meantime in the main arena sound artist HOLLY HERNDON was building up her captivating sound installation with the aid of two huge screens projecting images inextricably joined to the intricate outpour of sounds brimming with unexpected samples taken from everyday life. She opened her set communicating via computer written text with the PA and then audience, then surprised us by clicking on the personal pages of some of the attendees via Facebook, highlighting extracts of entries and photos. It felt very weird and openly intrusive, challenging the very notion of social media and our contradictory relationship with them: we oddly have become accustomed to communicating online with friends and colleagues when in fact the entire world can watch and virtually enter our private lives in secrecy. Technology geared towards mass control disguised as fun? I am sure everyone intuitively gets that we are increasingly becoming open to intrusions, but we chose to be happy with that, such is the desire not be left behind by progress...

After this perfectly legit prying exercise through facebook profiles, Holly stepped up her set through pleasingly engaging sounds, visually inviting us to engage with the surprising complexity of the everyday: from city pigeon mandalas to the virtual compact home of what could have been a Japanese student. We visited its every minute corner, ending up inside humble colourful boxes of washing powders which turned into kaleidoscopic wonders, stressing the invasive place that products have in our daily lives, becoming almost an extension of us. 
I then prepared for the culmination of the Female Pioneers of Electronic Music event.

CARTER TUTTI VOID are non other than Chris Carter & Cosey Fanni Tutti from legendary avantgarde/industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle, and Nik Colk Void from post-industrial/noise project Factory Floor. The performance was part of a small European tour which followed on from a previous London appearance all the way back in 2011. Cosey is a fascinating 60-something all-round artist who influenced experimental art and music in a substantial way, alongside other eminently relevant names of here generation, such as Genesis P. Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV) and Penny Rimbaud (Crass). Their set saw rhythm-meister Chris positioned in the centre  while the two women stood at the sides armed with electric guitars, from which they extrapolated eerie sounds by stroking and grating the strings with implements. 

Cosey seemed very pleased to be back in Tilburg, where a good crowd had gathered. Black and white geometric imagery appeared on the large screes, subtly messing with our senses, while we were treated to a very sensuous, slow-building, elemental techno. I found it all very subtle and mellow, but towards the end of the set they came out with a stronger, more vibrant edge which made me finally take off in blissful aural contentment. I felt catapulted back in the mid nineties through lush, organic lashes of psychedelic trance finely balanced with a clever, arty kind of techno, steering well away from the in-yer-face commercial stuff these artists have shunned throughout all their careers. At the end of the performance, although I never felt I was witnessing anything cutting edge or new, I was pleased to have experienced such a heart-warming old-school set, which felt rewardingly uplifting

Too bad I had to give up on Unaussprechlichen Kulten who had plaid simultaneously over at Little Devil, Tilburg’s famous death metal hell-hole, but I still had some energy left to walk to Paradox to see MICK BARR’s solo clinic (Krallice, Octis and Ocrilim). In front of a few guitar nerds eager to catch some of his secrets, Mick plugged in and began flying along the guitar neck at the speed of light: probably one of the fastest guys I have ever seen, he was not too concerned about perfection but rather on capturing the essence of his unique slant on metal: unrefined, moody and darkly claustrophobic. Mick awed and entranced us with his eccentric syncopated avant-metal language, uttering the odd toxic lyric through the microphone. Many of us were speechless. The first complimentary word that came to mind upon leaving was: nutcase...


After Wednesday’s stupendous performance from local act Dodecahedron, I heard positive comments from foreign festival attendants about the "surprising darkness" of Dutch underground metal: obviously, well established grim duo Urfaust and Mories’ many unpalatable outputs are not an exception. I am a huge fan of the great variety and quality of the extreme music this small country is currently producing: The Netherlands have been mainly renown for the strong death and doom heritage, but in recent times we have all been able to feast on excellent, unique bands such as the mysterious An Autumn for Crippled Children, Mondvolland (sadly RIP), Terzji de Horde, Nihill, Laster, Ggu:ll and so on. All the above are trying to offer their individual take on darkness, but the knack for a degree of experimentation and/or individuality is actually coming from all angles, hence the uplifting gems provided by folk metallers Alvenrad, rockers The Good Hand, singer-songwriter Mirna’s Fling… And Exivious. 

EXIVIOUS: Celestial Voyage 

Exivious certainly occupies the highest tiers of the Dutch musicianship olympus, and Incubate, which does so well in focusing on the local scene, gave me a chance to indulge in their dazzling instrumental journeys consisting of interwoven astral layers of Cynic meets Allan Holdsworth. 
The Cynic link goes beyond the obvious musical influences, since at the core of the band we have none other than Tymon Kruidenier, who appears on guitar and growls on Cynic’s come back album “Traced in Air” and in the subsequent EP “Retraced”. My special, and at times troubled, relationship with Cynic goes way back, so it was nice and comfortable for me to see Tymon walk on stage barefoot and in modest hippy attire. He stood gracefully and shyly in meditative stance while playing, his inner eye gazing at the flow of a glowingly familiar cosmic stream… 

Tymon might be the better known musician in this fusion/metal combo, but he is not the exception as far as musicianship goes (incidentally, he is also a phenomenal producer). I was utterly amazed by the confident displays of gorgeousness from the other guitarist, Michel Nienhuis’ (crucially, also in Dodecahedron), while bass player Robin Zielhorst (who also guested in Cynic’s “Retraced”) was superb and his fun contagious. Drummer Yuma van Eekelen might be the youngest member but he can also boast an enviable pedigree since he performed on Pestilence’s penultimate album “Doctrine”, another band I was a huge fan of since they helped creating the early 90s progressive death metal scene, alongside Cynic and Atheist. 

Yuma performed on a rather simple kit positioned sideways on the left hand corner of the stage, so his moves were on full view. While I could not fault his well-mixed recordings with Exivious, on the night I could not help comparing him with Sean Reinert, the gifted Gary Husband’s number one fan. Exivious music stays well clear from the speed of an extreme metal band, but Yuma’s jazzy approach didn’t always score particularly high on fluidity and nimbleness. As I learnt early on from the godly Gene Hoglan during his European tour with the unforgettable Death (incidentally, I could not help sparing a thought for Chuck when I watched both Krallice and Exivious), these hard to acquire skills do make all the difference in a progressive/fusion context. That said the band's performance was excellent. 

I particularly enjoyed the first part of their set, which indulged us in the warm and uplifting Holdsworth-boosted realm of Cynic, while I did not find the latter part of the show, featuring a couple of tracks which tried to disengage from such influences, quite as striking. I cannot recommend Exivious’ two albums enough, the first one being more mysteriously atmospheric, the latter boasting a sound to die for. If you have always wondered what Cynic should have sounded like after “Focus”, had my dear friend Paul Masvidal not succumbed to personal travesties and depression, well here you have a scintillating example. Equally, perhaps the Dutch band is too close to Holdsworth, BUT - hello?… - we are talking of one of the best and most innovative jazz-rock guitarists EVER (the best in my eyes), so I see no problem here whatsoever: such luck that Exivious are around with enough talent and hopefully will to stay true to their gift of beauty. Onwards and upwards!

I felt very satisfied after the Exivious show, and wondered if it would be wise to skip This Will Destroy You playing next at Dudok. To clear all doubts, I strolled in good company down to the venue (aka Het Patronaat), only to find the doom-gaze/post-rock extremisms of this band overwhelmingly predictable. Rather than appealing to my wildly emotional side, this type of music can often put me off (just like with the utterly repulsive “emo” did many years ago), with the eminently good exception of much loved and revered Scottish masters Mogwai, who have always showed massive balls through unforgettable live sets played at unthinkable volume, in pitch black darkness and disorienting strobes on at all times!
So there was just enough time for a round of refreshments while waiting for the night to finally turn blacker than black…


Various not so friendly looking skinheads had invaded my hotel on Friday morning, all aggressively clad in black and studded belts like a ruthless army. General Shatraug and Hoath looked unsettling grim even without corpse paint all over their heads and faces: enough said. The threatening, uneasy mood was carried through by the four very diverse Finnish bands on the bill (a few of the session musicians were playing multiple sets) at the perfectly suitable cave-like Extase. What a feast, and what a chance for an insight into a scene which has given so much to BM!

TRUE BLACK DAWN: The Anti-Christian Ritual

First on were still relatively unknown cult black metallers true BLACK DAWN, once simply Black Dawn, who were performing for the first time outside Finland. Frontman Wrath, humorously described as “scream queen” on the band’s official FB page, appeared in monk attire holding an inverted cross fashioned as candelabra, orchestrating a solemn ritual. Looking slender and strikingly emaciated due to white corpse paint all over his bold head and heavily smudged makeup around the eye sockets and temples, he focused his wide open, painfully red eyes on a high point above the crowd’s heads, at one point extinguishing the candles on his forehead like a true sadomasochistic repentant. The band performed a blood-chilling set of mid-paced, gloomy and very enjoyable satanic BM, which bode well for the upcoming album. Those were 45 minutes well spent and a good omen for the rest of the night. Well, almost.

Half an hour break gave me time to pop in and out of V39, a venue showcasing hardcore, to see the final glimpses of SVALBARD, a captivating young band from the UK featuring a really energetic, talented girl on guitar. The venue was heaving, which was a great sign, and from what I managed to see and hear, these punks seemed to truly wear their hearts on their sleeves and are well worth checking out. 

AZAGHAL: The Dead Orthodoxy 

I ran back to Extase for the second act, AZAGHAL. Narqath is a long-serving veteran who has been active in a few bands, one of them being the finely named heathen black metal act, Wyrd. I was well up for sampling what they had to offer, being roughly acquainted with some of their melody-intertwined outbursts of fast, quite bestial orthodox BM. Well, perhaps if you stumble on stage as drunk as a rat, in heavy artillery and suitably ill-applied make-up, maybe you set the mood for what’s to come: sadly it soon became clear that the testosterone-filled aggression was so unchallenging and underwhelming that after a couple of numbers I decided to exit for a few minutes. When I returned to see the set through (yes, that’s how much I love my black metal), goofiness and monotony still ruled. Oddly, this felt like shallow and uninspiring teen metal, to which I could not connect in the slightest. I am not easily pleased, and why should I be, with the multitude of bands on offer from all around the globe who strive to achieve, if not uniqueness, at least a decent degree of artistic quality? The stark reality is that orthodox BM, and any other type of music that wants to stubbornly remain unchanged throughout the decades, must be seriously fucking good, otherwise we are quite happy with going back to the good old masterpieces, thank you very much. 

Now this was probably the only tough(ish) choice I had to make during my 3 Incubate days. 65DAYSOFSTATIC were on at Midi: I could have easily popped in for 10” before the next black metal act was due on, but would have been it worth it? Nah, all or nothing is my life motto, so I stuck to my guns, giving BAPTISM top priority. And I was rewarded aplenty…

BAPTISM: The Rapture Of The Darkened Soul 

Lord Sargofagian, another veteran of the Finnish scene, has two undeniable things on his side: talent and charisma. To say that I was eager to see BAPTISM live for the first time was an understatement, given the spins I gave to their albums, especially the flawless As Darkness Enters, a superb, timeless piece of Grim Art totally confectioned by the Lord himself, which truly captured my imagination. 

He set foot on stage bringing with him a halo of eeriness that immediately made everything feel authentic and credible: the long, straight blond hair narrowly framing the sinister white face and blood-shot eyes of a true wizard. His faithful companions Sg.7, whose short haircut lent him a cool punk edge, looking like living art with his large tattoos on display, and TG with his Sumerian style beard, were equally a sight to behold. As the show unfolded, thick black clouds gathered to create a mesmerising downpour of soaring melody carrying unmistakably that ineffable, primordial "female quality” that characterises the deepest, most mysterious layers of BM.

Easy preys, our trembling souls were uplifted by an intense cold storm which had all the hallmarks of magik. An overwhelming orgy of misanthropic melancholy, forlorn heroic chants and breathtaking blasts swirled in the air with spellbinding power and meaning. The poignancy and the beauty raised by the blizzard-like tremolo riffage and the gloom, stirring slow/mid paced sections alike, was elating for both the ear and the eye, making of this show one of the most vividly evocative displays of haunted Black Metal in its purest essence. 

To me, at this point of its artistic journey, Baptism has it all. This ritual proved to be one my most cherished live moment since perhaps Vemod, as it reinforced my conviction that when Black metal addresses unreservedly the intense beauty of dark human emotions, becomes simply a sublime and unsurpassable form of art. It is not often these days that we are reminded that his pure, deeply soul-searching brand of black metal is still the one and only heir of Romantic classical music, living and breathing antagonistically through the bleakest, most hidden crevices of modern life… Such a miracle, such a treasure to cherish and respect.

SARGEIST: The Scourge

We had it all so far: from medieval occult rituals we had to squeezed through narrow passages to come out on top of dizzying mountain peaks, in full view of BM’s cold, dark, misanthropic majesty. So it was left to Shatraug to destroy all by hitting us with what is perhaps the most contemporary face of BM, one that strives towards surpassing itself through uncompromisingly scathing, ruthlessly evil, in-human to the core, determination. SARGEIST brought to the stage the kind of overtly threatening, all-male sonic aggression shared by Svartidaudi and MGLA, only making it far more physical, with violence prevailing over melody not just aurally but also visually (skinhead vocalist Hoath looked beyond evil). The ferocious war-like pace was steeped in abominable filth, leaving no prisoners. Where Baptism brought luciferian wings to the blackened soul, Sargeist shot the fucker down point blank and fed upon it. 

If there should be a definition of “true black metal”, well in my opinion this should be exactly it: a destructive, distasteful, negational force that will not be caught or tamed. Ever. The ultimate, final rebellion. Of course, like a true emperor, Shatraug has under his domain both festering melancholy melody and belligerent bleak ugliness, which has been put on display through the rich Sargeist discography and that his other superb bands, from Horna to Mortualia and Behexen, yet tonight he carried the flag of the grim reaper bringing forth the ultimate sound of hell on earth, leaving only devastation behind. And by doing so he wrapped up quite a complete picture of what Finnish black metal is at. This country’s contribution to the genre is remarkable and, few exceptions aside, still firmly rooted in the murkiest layers of the underground, the only place where the dark arts can still do some genuine damage. 

In its X year of existence Incubate returned to deliver metal from the very entrails of the underground: no big one-dayer with big headliners, and I throughly enjoyed that. The true measure of a good event comes from the effort of being novel and eager to present those few selected acts that genuinely influence the present and future of metal. Incubate’s winning formula is that of offering, within a week long sequence of concerts covering a huge spectrum of music and art performances, a stimulating selection of underground metal acts across the genres: a juicy treat to indulge in, while supporting the music we love.
Thanks to Jelle and the Incubate crew. 
See you next year!

All photographs by Alex Mysteerie