Høstsabbat Festival 2013 Review By Saúl Do Caixão
The lifeblood of any musical community is local talent – flying bands in is an increasingly expensive and risky venture. Competition from (neverending!) American TV series, an equally interminable economic downturn and good old fashioned apathy have conspired to create an atmosphere where flying a band in (even from elsewhere in Europe) can leave a promoter eating precious little but the scraps of meals past he or she can find in the gatefold of a cherished LP or salvaged from the bin. The way around this? Book local and price low! The talented heavy music community of Oslo decided to go one step further this year, and booked a whole festival comprised only of the best that Norway has to offer the discerning space/hard rocker. Thirteen bands for an Autumn Sabbath of some of the most wonderful live music I’ve seen or heard this year, coupled with the nicest audience you could ask for. If you feel like your flagging faith in humanity* needs a boost, this kind of an event fits the bill on two levels: first of all, music itself can be a channel for the best, most positive aspects of humankind; second, when you’re surrounded by an audience of musicians, fans, promoters, record label owners, artists and technicians all geared towards the success of an art form they believe in, it creates exactly the kind of free-spirited, open-minded atmosphere that generation after generation has tried and failed to achieve. Spread over two days and held/part-funded as part of a University’s bicentennial celebrations (UK government TAKE NOTE), it gives me great pleasure to report back to you, dear reader, on a Norwegian underground bursting with talent and positive energy!
The irony is that the first band of the festival was arguably the most forgettable – Hymn certainly had good tones, but sadly their sound lacked anything vaguely resembling originality. Both the guitarist and the drummer of this duo are excellent musicians, but I was left with a distinct impression that they’ve started gigging too early on – they wear their influences on their sleeve (Sleep/Matt Pike’s shirtless wonder-riffing), but haven’t yet managed to transcend them. The last track was probably their best, a raga in the tradition of Pike & Co.’s infamous swansong. They showed promise, but failed to impress me – definitely a shame, but it’ll be interesting to see what sounds these lads are making in a few years’ time.
From a band that needed much work to a band that have clearly spent hours on end in their practice space honing their songs into intricately woven tapestries of psychedelic bliss, Spectral Haze should need no introduction to those of you who have been paying attention over the last year! Their demo was the finest of 2012 (the vinyl version’s due out soon…), and their performance that Friday was utterly jaw-dropping. Out-of-control, schizoid vocals and fast riffs that made the entire audience bang their heads, not least thanks to the second best drumming of the entire festival. It’s rare for me to truly be able to say in a loud voice “This band are channeling Hawkwind”, but Spectral Haze really are THAT good. The modern-day kings of speed, this is a band that will be on everyone’s lips in a few years if there’s any justice, the heaviest of psych that pisses over practically everyone desperately trying to make this kind of noise. Hardly a revelation, as I already knew they were exceptional, but a reinforcement of their talent. Mind blowing.
Trondheim’s High Priest Of Saturn took to the stage next – after producing one of the best demos of 2011, I was a trifle underwhelmed by their Svart Records début. Having since revisited the LP, it’s a very solid album indeed, but the live show they treated us to that evening re-affirmed my faith in this progressive downer-rock quartet! Merethe Heggset’s beautiful, ethereal vocals are twice as powerful in the live arena as on record, but the real standout was Sivertsen’s guitar playing – the man has LEADS to rip your head clean open, with a healthy dose of soul to back it up. The real icing on the cake was a cover that was done so well that I didn’t recognize it until they were about halfway through! When I realized what it was, I broke out into a massive grin that stayed plastered to my face the whole evening – I’m going to be a bit of a spoilsport and refuse to tell you what it was, allowing you, dear reader, to experience the same “Eureka!” moment I did! Suffice to say it was a crowning moment of a very enjoyable set!
The next band of interest was Tusmørke, a prog band from Oslo of whom I had only heard people speak in hyperbole. Well, they were wrong. Very wrong. Nobody was able to come even CLOSE to how UTTERLY FUCKING BRILLIANT this band is. I mentioned that Spectral Haze’s drummer (also of Aura Noir and Obliteration fame) was pushed into second place on the skinbeater’s podium; well it was Tusmørke’s Hlewagastir (?!) who stole the top spot from under him, although frankly all four members of this band are so wonderfully talented that singling his performance out would be doing the rest of them a massive disservice. Lead singer and (phenomenal) bass player Benediktator (hah!) opened the show by parading through the audience in a cloak, ringing a bell, before disrobing to jeans and a feathered ruff. What then followed was easily one of the finest, least pretentious and outright enjoyable hours of prog rock I have ever experienced, live or on record. If you shut your eyes, it was like being in a cramped London club in 1968, although apparently they draw on a (unknown to me) tradition of Norwegian prog stretching back years (band names, please?). The music this quartet of geniuses play is a version of the term “heavy” rarely found in the modern world, purely by virtue of the skill it takes to play it! The only guitar on stage had four strings, and the loss of its 6-stringed cousin was not felt at all – keyboards, bass, flute, drums, vocals and a Puckish, mischievous sense of fun to the whole thing! There was fancy footwork both on and off stage, after all, with rhythms as downright funky as those on “The Quintessence of Elements” (my favourite track!), you’d have to be made of stone to stand still! I wish I could have understood some of the Norwegian stage banter, hopefully when they play to audiences outside of their home turf they’ll adapt accordingly what I’m told is delightfully obtuse and silly banter between songs. A touch of the absurd, funky basslines & dancing, intricate drumming, gorgeous flute and silly costumes – in my book, that spells PERFECT. Oh, and if anyone has a spare of their first 7” (long gone…), please get in touch…
Of course, a band like that is impossible to follow, even for an all-star entity like Lamented Souls; for all the Trouble vibes and note-perfect epic doom metal that was played, my mind was still full of Norwegian prog. But there was plenty foot-on-the-monitor goodness and NWOBHM gallop to be had, and in the absence of a new Solstice album, this live show was a good stopgap.
Day two was kicked off by Dunbarrow, essentially Graveyard/Witchcraft/early Pentagram also rans who were singularly uninspired – bands like this are ten-a-penny these days. However, the organizers had gone to the trouble of setting up a floor cushion in a corner of the venue, and it would be unfair not to say that I was actually very happy vegetating comfortably in the corner on said padding, with the bland but pleasant sounds of Dunbarrow massaging my tinnitus. A case of an average band in the right place at the right time; end result? Lots of toe-tapping, a few good leads, and a total inability to distinguish them from other bands of their ilk.
Purple Hill Witch, on the other hand, were a perfect example of how to pay reverence to the past while not sounding stale and boring. The rhythm section is absolutely fantastic (arguably the best of the festival, talk about locked down, and that BASS SOLO!), but the vocals propel this band into the superlative! They reminded me of Unorthodox’s brand of psychedelic hard rock (total GODS, check ‘em out!), in fact, it’s not a massive stretch to imagine PHW being a lost Hellhound band from the Maryland area! It’s no secret that I mourn the fact that no-one plays doom that way any more, and it was a genuinely uplifting experience hearing the DC sound again. First shit-eating grin of the day, can’t bloody wait for the album!
The Devil And The Almighty Blues (seriously, of all the crap band names you could pick…) were an extremely professional follow-up, but their sound was just too damn polished for my liking. The frustrating thing is there was no single element I could fault – the licks were pretty good and the vocalist is talent incarnate (shades of Dickie Peterson), but the fact of the matter is that blues has to have a root in complete and utter FILTH, and the sheer downtrodden misery of those 1920s-1940s masters is not there with this undeniably talented Oslo troupe, and herein lies also the reason a fair few of the white blues-rock bands of the 60s-70s fell flat on their arses too – the best bands of that era took the blues in a different direction, be it prog, proto-metal, psychedelia or proto-punk, never just playing the blues “straight”. Entertaining enough, but the magic wasn’t there for me.
Resonaut were worth the trip in their own right. I have to confess to being somewhat biased, having followed these guys from their demo days to their recently-released 12” on At War With False Noise (BUY IT), but the fact of the matter is that songwriting this good merits the kind of praise I have to lavish on them. HUGE riffs delivered by a fluid yet assured rhythm section, virtuoso leads, powerful vocals (probably my personal favourite of the whole festival), rock-solid drumming and intelligent lyrics; in my book, that’s everything I want from music of ANY kind. They opened with “Sky Burial”, an ode to better things beyond through nature, carried off with such conviction and soul that it managed to strike an emotional chord even for a hardened, cynical city-dweller like myself. The word “soul” is one that applies to the band in spades – it’s what makes Wino’s pipes and lyrics so unique, and the same goes for Sivertsen’s assured delivery. The entire front row was singing along “I have been buried in the SKY”, an utterly heart-stopping moment that brought a lump to my throat. Band of the day, and the EP is one of my favourites of 2013 already, entrancing and sublime.
Tombstones had the misfortune to have to follow one of the best new doom bands, and were made to look decidedly pedestrian in comparison, which is a shame because as Sleep-worship goes, they’re actually pretty damn good. It brought back memories of the first band of the festival who were doing much the same thing but in a very half-baked (no pun intended) fashion – a band like Tombstones are what you get after jamming tunes out for a good length of time. Originality factor zero, but their sound is a nice mix of Oakland’s best and the first few Boris albums – if Conan weren’t total pants**, they’d probably sound like this. Ironically, the bits I liked most were the faster parts! I won’t be rushing out to buy their new album, but they were good fun, played well and weren’t laying claim to being anything but a bunch of fans out to please themselves. Shame they had to follow such a superlative band, it rather showed up their shortcomings…
Brutus were definitely a surprise! I can’t say I have much time for people who are just out to ape the past without putting their own stamp on it, and consequently this band’s recorded output does little for me. But the set they played in Norway that night was an infectiously enjoyable set of pissed-up hard rock, the singer bouncing off the audience with his shirt off, backed by a band that are able to set down a hell of a groove, in the best tradition of Leaf Hound and Led Zeppelin! If you want to hear good contemporary hard rock, I’d still go for Fellwoods, but Brutus are like a brilliant pub rock band that you could see every Friday night for a year and never get bored! Good luck to ‘em!
Lonely Kamel are another band whose records would never enter my collection, but managed to finish the night off with style and panache – the only band on the bill that one could really class as pure “stoner rock”, it’s total KYUSS overload, with a Pentagram cover thrown in for good measure; i.e. predictable and forgettable. But just as some nights you just want to gorge on junk food, so the same goes for textbook stoner rock – simple riffs that make you bang your head are all I want some nights, and it would be unjust to say this talented quartet did anything but bring the house down. Many bands would kill to get the kind of reaction Lonely Kamel got, and they were a great choice to end the festival.
As a showcase for a scene, you’d be hard pressed to find any more awe-inspiring than Høstsabbat – a fantastic assortment of heavy bands at various stages in their evolution; from titans of old to the recently spawned, there’s more to Norway these days than dodgy black metal and fjords! We live in an era of instant gratification, greed/self interest and homogenization – events like this are important not just for the musical experience, but also as a bonding ritual for people who wish to place art and community in a higher place than financial gain or vanity. A wonderful experience from beginning to end.
*On my return, 99% humanity went back to being total cock nuggets, though…
**Lovely human beings, wish ‘em all the best, but the riffs and vocals ain’t my cup of tea! All amps and no songs!
Scribed By: Saúl Do Caixão
Photos By: Helge Brekke (www.facebook.com/helgebrekkefoto)