Nestled between seven peaks* on the West coast of Norway, lies the quiet naval trading centre of Bergen, the country’s second largest city. However, this typically picturesque location has also required a reputation for the blasphemous, the loud and the metal, primarily down to the existence of the (now sadly defunct) Hole In The Sky Festival. Pretty much every lineup of said festival was jaw-dropping, although ultimately this level of quality proved (in the eyes of the organizers) impossible to sustain, and 2011 was to be the last year of its existence. Fortunately for us, you can’t suppress the appetite for great heavy metal in a wonderful location, and so, with some of the staff from the from Hole In The Sky on board, Beyond The Gates came into existence, with a more underground agenda (no more Autopsy or Immortal topping the bill!), coupled with a remit to expose the best new thrash, death and black metal acts on offer. Despite it being somewhat atypical fare for this ‘zine, I nagged the Shaman to let us cover it – in my book, whether it’s thrash, black, death, doom or grind, chances are it’s all HEAVY METAL, and genre is but a flippant umbrella for the narrow minded. My pestering was successful, and my three days spent in Bergen experiencing the second year of this amazing festival can best be summed up in two words: fukking hell**! A complete sensory overload, with as many unexpected surprises as there were predictable mindblowers!
Things got off to a pretty amazing start on the Thursday, Cult Of Fire kicking off the festival with an intro of chanting monks and a very elaborate stage setup that included scythes, candles, hoods (modified to fit the low ceilings of the venue, apparently!) and insignias. Interestingly enough, they have the same eccentricity and virtuosity of their fellow Czechs, the legendary Master’s Hammer – their sound has fantastic texture to it, although some of this is lost in the live show as they don’t have a live keyboardist. But then again, nothing bores me more than a band that sound exactly the same live as they do on record, so the less polished, raw experience that we were treated to in Bergen was most definitely a treat. There was clearly no attempt to ease the audience into the three day marathon, total darkness from the word ‘go’.
Russians Pseudogod were a welcome counterpoint to the intricacies of the Czechs, with a sound that is lodged firmly in the latter-day Sarcofago camp. There are a lot of bands doing this sort of thing these days, and to be honest you’d be hard pressed to make me listen to the one recording I have of theirs (a split with the decidedly superior Morbosidad), and although they’re much better live, there was nothing special about their performance, which isn’t to say I didn’t headbang while they were playing. They seemed a lot better than the last time I saw them, although that probably had a lot to do with their sound being better suited to a grotty basement club like the Garage than a cavernous venue in Berlin. Still, hardly a performance you could fault, and loads of other people in attendance loved ‘em!
The band of the night that left me cold (and not in a grimm frostbitten way either…) was Vemod – I was warned against comparing them to Von, but I’ve given them another listen and my opinion stands – the repetitive riffs and ethereal atmosphere that have a quasi-psychedelic effect; I dunno, that’s pretty much the reason I listen to Von. Vemod’s sound is clearly a lot more glacial, and I actually like what I’ve since heard of their début album much more than the live show they gave in Bergen. However, as is always the case, there will be people who attended that will attest that I am talking out of my arse; they were some people’s top band of the weekend, so I guess they’re worth checking out for those of you that yearn for a re-interpretation of Ildjarn’s sound…
Obliteration are always a sure bet for a brilliant show – opening with “Catacombs of Horror” (I had it confirmed that this IS a nod to “Servants Of The Warsmen”) off their astounding sophomore effort, 2009’s “Nekropsalms”, the Garage was treated to a sublime set by one of the best death metal bands around today. If you claim to like death metal and yet need convincing about this band, LEAVE THE HALL. We were given a full preview of the new album the next day, and even through a noisy bar, it was clear that the upcoming album is something special. The band have upped the black metal influence on “Black Death Horizon” (hmmm, title might have been a clue…), which is due for release in early November on Indie & Relapse records. This change in direction will deservedly will them many more fans, although there will doubtless be those that would have preferred a verbatim regurgitation of the Autopsy/Morbid Angel worship of the first two albums. Fuck ‘em – great band, blinding performance, can’t wait for the new album! The only real problem with their set was it was impossible to follow – all the way from Poland, MGLA put on a fantastic show of really intense black metal, but Obliteration had already made my night. That said, the MGLA show was absolutely spellbinding, the vocals in particular are of the most despairing kind imaginable, and it’s always good to hear a black metal band that haven’t forgotten to have RIFFS! A huge, suffocating sound that allows for no light – capped off with obscured faces and leather jackets (Midnight have had their “look” stolen…) that rounded off a truly savage first day.
The second day found my obstinate bastard of a hangover being assaulted by another “full on” band, this time, Trondheim’s Slagmaur – when you resort to wearing masks and rubber appendages on stage, there is a very real peril of the whole vision coming off as farcical, and I can’t honestly say that these Norwegians fully avoided this pitfall. That said, anything’s better than the anemic panda look, and anyone that deviates so much from the norm is doing something right in my book. Plus, once I’d got my head around the somewhat dodgy stage garb, the fact remained that there was actually something pretty intricate and unique going on in the band’s music. By turns progressive, dissonant, psychedelic and savage, Slagmaur’s music exudes a sense of true off-kilter virtuosity, in composition as in performance. The drummer was primitive without being repetitive, and the singer’s voice is a million times more aggressive and insane live than on record. I had my misgivings, but definitely a band paying no heed to convention, unlike lone Finns Kadotus, who followed them and did nothing for me (same also for the sole French band on the bill, Antaeus).
There was no doubt in my mind that the day (almost) belonged to Execration, though! Fantastically played metal of death, like Voivod being buggered by Wagner Antichrist circa 1987. The playing was tight, the stage show refreshingly free of gimmicks – if you’re tired of the same old rehashed sounds and concepts in death metal, this is a band that just might re-assert your faith. The only thing that robbed them of the “band of the day” spot was the fantastic performance that Nocturnal Breed gave us! A treat for the eyes and the ears (despite the lack of strippers), these Norwegians have (in conjunction with their countrymen Aura Noir) been plugging away at the sleazy blackened thrash game long before bands like Midnight made it fashionable. Singer and bassplayer S.A. Destroyer was easily the best frontman of the whole festival, his performance wild-eyed and demonic – he also had the best spikes on display, in perfect tandem with the wanton excess that characterizes this particular brand of filth. Apparently, much of their set was composed of old stuff, something on which I can’t really comment as I’m not well-acquainted enough with their extensive back catalogue; all I can say is that they fucking destroyed from beginning to end, which left Aeternus with an impossible task. They gave a fantastic performance, but I felt proceedings had peaked with Nocturnal Blood, and I wasn’t able to fully get myself into the mindset for Morbid Angel/Incantation worship, flawless though it was. Hopefully one day I’ll catch a similarly great performance under slightly different circumstances!
The real high point of the festival was to follow on the third day, at a sparsely attended matinée show. Those who missed it were FOOLS, as Inculter were easily the biggest revelation of the entire festival. A new Norwegian thrash act, with drunken vocals and chunky, face-ripping riffs, this band will go far, mark my words. The spirit of “In The Sign Of Evil” looms heavily, and their 7”/tape comes with the highest recommendation from myself and anyone who witnessed them play! As if that wasn’t enough, the second matinée show came from Germany’s Drowned, who started off with a total Trouble/Solitude Aeternus vibe (for which I will freely admit I’m a sucker), before pummeling us into submission with some of the best death-doom I’ve heard in ages. I didn’t realise they’d been around so long (apparently their discography goes back to 1992!), but I was aware of the links to Necros Christos. A major factor that made them stand out so much was the truly stellar punk drumming, of which there was precious little during this festival; it was a refreshing change to hear someone who is clearly a great player cutting down his performance to the bare bones. Both Drowned and Inculter ranked many proverbial metal fists up the arse, they deserved bigger audiences and will doubtless get them in years to come!
A few hours and drinks later, it was the turn of doom to take centre stage, with Atlantean Kodex proffering a set of their distinctive epic heavy metal. I can’t pretend to ever have been a massive fan, which is odd considering my love of doom and classic ‘eavy metal. It was very well played, sounded great, and the band were clearly really enjoying themselves (which in itself was a welcome change in a festival where most bands were trying their hardest to look like they’ve just slaughtered a legion of priests), but the initial enjoyment wore pretty thin. For some reason, their sound has always struck me as very German, for no other reason than their records are very “serious” – on the other hand, nothing makes my blood boil quite like “scooby doom” bands, so I’d rather sit through the jovial if unengaging Atlantean Kodex ten times over than suffer “doom” bands that are more into jokes about bongs and wizards than Saint Vitus. While we’re on the subject, I thought that with the demise of The Devil’s Blood, we’d finally be rid of piss-weak “occult hard rock” of no substance. Thankfully for those of you that like Lemouchi’s defunct band, Year Of The Goat are doing much the same sort of thing. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed, but loads of people there seemed to lap it up, so maybe I’m just a grumpy old fart… As for Devil, as much as I adore guitarist Stian and the work he does for heavy metal/hard rock internationally, I can’t kid myself into thinking his band is any good. The kindest thing I can think to say of them is that they were much better than the first two times I saw them.
Germany’s finest death metal band Necros Christos were up next – what is there left to say about this amazing band that hasn’t already been said? Everyone who has even a passing interest in death metal knows that frontman Mors Dalos Ra has created a spellbinding sound of rare depth and subtlety. Garbed in distinctive ceremonial robes, a Necros Christos performance is a trip into the darkest reaches of the unknown, a sound so dense it takes not just the skill of the musicians (which is far above average) to hold it together, but also the hands of an experienced soundman, and I’m happy to say both elements were on fine form. They’re touring Europe with England’s finest exponents of equally murky death, Grave Miasma in a few months – sadly their schedule will not include the UK, but for those of you living in the vicinity of one of the places they’re playing: do not miss it.
The night was wrapped up by none other than Italy’s infamous Bulldozer, the band that initially convinced me that this festival was a “must” on my Summer calendar – the quartet of albums they released are absolute classics in my book! They wrote songs about pornstar politicians, whisky and the huge amount of dirty mags the drummer had hidden under his mattress – my kind of band. Therefore, as a die hard (no pun intended) Bulldozer fan, it pains me to say that it’s a good job that the rest of the lineup was so stellar, because otherwise I would have left Norway a trifle disappointed. Thing is, listening to the records again on my return hammered home the fact that Bulldozer were always a power trio, and seeing them take to the stage with no less than six members was really pretty weird, and the results also suffered. The main influences of Bulldozer’s sound are pretty obvious – Motörhead, Venom and Slayer; the first two bands being the very embodiment of the power trio (and yes, I know that Motörhead recorded great albums as a four piece…), but the main power behind the three-piece lies in the crucial maxim: “less is more”. The raw energy of three musicians playing fast and loud is the defining sound of heavy bands from Blue Cheer and Grand Funk to Hellhammer and Sodom. Said rawness is just not there with the current incarnation of Bulldozer, and with that rawness, the sheer sleaze of the band has also largely been lost. A.C. Wild simply stands behind a bloody pulpit these days (a very cool prop, I have to say!), and gesticulates along with his (still ripping) vocals – he claims that not playing bass any more makes it easier for him to sing, but he seemed to manage fine in the past, so I’m still pretty perplexed… To say they were bad would be doing them a massive disservice, and I will freely admit to having headbanged like a maniac down the front throughout; after all they played pretty much everything I could have wanted them to play: Impotence, Minkions, The Derby, Ilona & Whisky Time (twice!) were all on the setlist, and were delivered and received with delight! All-in-all, great fun, but a bit of an anticlimax – had I never seen this incarnation of Bulldozer, it would have been no big deal. I guess it’s unreasonable to expect a band of this caliber and age to sound the way they did thirty years ago (who does?), and although it’s not a performance that will linger forever as a cherished memory, it did nothing to spoil my love of Italy’s finest export since Sofia Loren! And always remember: “DON’T TRUST THE SAINT!”
In conclusion, Beyond The Gates is a tremendous festival – hosted by a great venue in a beautiful location (Londoners will be able to reacquaint themselves with the concept of “fresh air”), with much to offer those in search of the new and the unexpected. In three days, the organizers managed to cover an incredible range of extreme music – thrash, death, black, doom and trad metal were all represented, and special kudos for using the festival as a showcase for fresh talent – in an age where many festivals are content to rest on their laurels and simply book bills consisting almost exclusively of rehashed bands from the Eighties pissing on their legacy, Beyond The Gates is a model of how it should be done. The clash with Killtown Deathfest was a little unfortunate, and Norway is an expensive country, but hopefully the former will be avoided next year, and as for the latter, Bergen is way cheaper than Oslo – here’s hoping for more international attendance next year! Thanks to the staff of the Garage venue, my host G.M. (best human being 2013), Walter (king of the decks) and the festival organizers for inviting The Shaman along for the savage ride! Skål, ya bastards!
* Seven Peaks, down in hell, in the land where Satan fell…” (I’ll pun if I want to…)
** Apologies to Sadistik Exekution…
Scribed By: Saúl Do Caixão
Photos By: Jarle H. Moe (www.jarlehm.com)