If there’s one day that would have guaranteed my attendance at this festival, it was always going to be today. A Storm Of Light, Amenra, Wolfbrigade and the almighty Neurosis – it’s like they made it for me, or at least every other guy who grew up on Southern Lord and Relapse’s better days. After a good kip (thank you, hotel that’s two minutes’ walk from the venue) it’s back to business with MGR. The solo project of ex-Isis guitarist Mike Gallagher, it’s a beautifully hazy wash of distortion, drone and crystalline melodies that drift in lazy, bittersweet wafts… for about five minutes. He’s then joined by 60% of A Storm Of Light, whereupon the four of them proceed to craft some truly fine instrumental metal goodness. There’s are hints of their pasts in there, especially Red Sparowes and Isis thanks to Gallagher and Josh Graham’s distinctively textured playing styles, but it’s got an air of freshness to it that’s more prevalent. Powerful, destructive and blissful, it’s a hell of a way to start the day.
Throne are also something of a surprise, but that’s more because their stoner-doom sound would have probably been more at home yesterday, surrounded by like-minded and denim-and-bandana-clad ensembles. They even have that classic Rickenbacker/SG pairing but the combo does suit their forceful, blues-heavy crawl pretty damn well, the wiggy guitarwork and haughty moans the perfect background accompaniment for a casual stroll across Mars, or whatever your astral body of choice may be. It might sit odd on today’s bill but for anyone still hung over and wanting to nod their heads like sloths at a grindcore show, it’s a good call.
Knowing next to nothing about Svalbard except for maybe thinking they might be Norwegian (turns out they’re locals so, really, I know nothing) it only takes them about a minute before they become my favourite new band. Tapping into my deep-seated desire for catchy yet earnest hardcore with big choruses and moody atmospheric interludes, they waste no time in delivering a furious, energising and elegantly constructed set that they sell with utter conviction, Serena Cherry’s vocals biting and unrestrained while her counterpart Liam Phelan takes a rougher, more melodic slant. On the softer side, they demonstrate a great ear for reverb-heavy cinematic heartstring-tugging, but it’s the driving, shout-along choruses that win me over. Plus, one of them’s wearing a Nasum shirt, which gives them automatic bonus points.
From one bunch of Bristolians to another, Sonance are one of today’s big draws for me, simply because their debut LP Like Ghosts might be one of the finest heavy records to come out of this country in the past few years, and they do not disappoint in the slightest. They’re the first band to use visuals for one, the grey and grainy footage of falling ash and rain as apt a depiction of their darkly intertwined melodies and cathartic devastation as anything short of Apocalypse Now. From sombre beginnings, they unexpectedly erupt with a sickeningly vicious assault that has them manhandling their instruments and belching forth bile and horror, prompting the first of many jarring reactions that spatter across their set. There are some sublime moments and some truly gut-wrenching ones, but neither one dominates, nor feels tokenistic. It feels more like an Aronofsky movie than a gig, smart and harrowing in equal measure, and if anyone’s going to come close to the might of tonight’s headliners, it’s them.
Rounding off the trio of Bristol bands on offer today, True Valiance sadly come across as pretty weak in comparison. They’re what I imagine a Madball / Testament supergroup would sound like, a metal-strewn pile-up of meaty breakdowns and fast, hard-hitting hardcore. They’re certainly intimidating enough, largely due to the considerable presence of vocalist Merv, for whom the words ‘human’ and ‘tank’ just don’t quite cut it, but there are enough subtle touches and counter-melodies at work that they’re actually pretty interesting to watch too. Sadly, this is one of their final shows but they can at least rest assured that they got a few new fans on the day.
I sadly only get to catch a few minutes of Bossk but they sound loud and impressive enough to warrant a mention (plus, I bought some Bossk-brand BBQ sauce from them, so I do have something to take away from the experience) but when it’s time to catch Mob Rules (not to be confused with the German power metallers, or with the Sabbath album, for that matter), it only takes a few minutes before things go tits up with an amp malfunction. A good-natured (well, kind of) heckle of “Fucking amateurs!” doesn’t seem to go down to well, but things are saved by their bassist with a full-on, honest-to-God poetry recital. It raises a few giggles, the mood is lightened and they can then get on with their angular, noisy hardcore with no further interruptions. While their chaotic creations sometimes run away from them, they just as often hit nasty, Unsane-like grooves and they sound like they’d cut you. Scary stuff.
When I make my way into A Storm Of Light’s set, they’re already fully immersed in their tribal end-times deluge, a driving and physically arresting experience, but then I see their visuals, most notably the vision of an inferno flickering behind a lone Aldi sign, and the apocalypse starts to seem that much more welcome. Despite a patchy sound that sometimes swamps Josh Graham’s portentous yells, they really do sound like the four horsemen’s favourite band, crushing and endlessly striding forward with unhesitating rage, and when the sound clears up, the final call-and-response invocation of ‘You Are The Hunted’ is devastating. Their efficacy is as much down to Billy Graves’ non-stop drummicide as it is to Graham’s singular approach to both guitar and to vocals, but the end result is the same nonetheless – total destruction.
While there’s a certain freedom in leaving myself in the hands of a band like ASOL, with Tombs the experience is more involved. It takes focus to break them down, their blackened sludge/metal/hardcore coming across as a torrent of sound until they begin to dissemble and the refinery of ‘Thanatos’ can be appreciated. Their rhythm work is in a world of its own, simple in execution but dizzying in its myriad shifts and jerks, and they switch from searing black metal to thuggish pummelling without losing momentum. ‘Edge of Darkness’ packs the might of both a Mastodon-baiting groover and the kind of death-breathing monster that Entombed would come out with if they’d hurry up and release another album, while ‘Portraits’ sounds like USBM supremacy, plain and simple. Suffocating and breathless, they sound like the shards of a hundred bands and, simultaneously, like nothing I’ve ever heard before, a unique but sometimes overwhelming behemoth.
I manage to grab myself a sneaky near-front spot for Wolfbrigade though, to be honest, I can’t help but feel nervous. The beach balls bouncing across the heads of the assembled crusties and skins is a nice, almost calming touch but when the five Swedes troupe onto the stage, it turns out I’m right to be nervous. They’re savage and resolutely in-your-face, ‘Feed The Flames’ less a song than punk itself being sharpened to a point and being used to punch through skulls, though Jocke does cut a heroic figure during that solo. Every song is met with another pit and rain of beer, a sea of leather stomping along to ‘The Curse Of Cain’ as a shaven-headed Micke rasps “Fuel my hate!” at the edge of the stage. It’s one of the few sets today where band and crowd both seemingly strive to outdo one another for pure destructive energy though despite their complete abandon, they sound perfect. Every lead, bark and d-beat is on time and on form, and their unstoppable enthusiasm throughout makes the eventual bruises worthwhile.
It’s back to the open space of the main room afterwards for Amenra, who already have the lights dimmed in preparation for them taking the stage and when their ritual begins, it seems to get darker still. One of the few bands to truly make use of visuals this weekend, it’s an hour that seemingly dominates every sense, the sensuously stark images a constant reminder of their raw savagery as they headbang to every searing chord and metronomic pound, as physical as it is sonic. Colin Van Eeckhout screams himself hoarse towards the rear of the stage, almost never facing the crowd, driving home the sometimes brutal simplicity of their approach but however they assemble their constituent parts, be it in the clinking emptiness of ‘Boden’ or in ‘Razoreater’s dense miasma, they strike a powerful chord. As Eeckhout strips off, the set heads towards its climax in ‘Silver Needle. Golden Nail,’ a final tensing of the muscles and emissive release, and then light is allowed in once more. The novices here can be heard chattering about how good it was, everyone else is talking about how this is the best they’ve ever seen them – given that I heard this same statement being applied to Sonance earlier, I propose that this shall now known as ‘the Temples Effect.’
Being honest, I’m now getting impatient as I know what they’re gearing up for in the main room but I feel I should pay Doom a visit first because, quite simply, they’re Doom! They have a direct kind of aggression that’s different from Amenra’s but also quite different to Wolfbrigade’s too, more focused and less rabid but still as quintessentially punk. The guitars are bright and needling, the vocals almost primordial, but the room is in a frenzy anyways, punters careening across the floor to the loose rattle of snare and to the voice of the Thatcher years still screaming to be heard. I don’t stick around as long as I rightfully should, but it’s still long enough to have a healthy amount of respect for one of the truly great punk bands still kicking against the pricks.
In a way, today has felt like one big build-up to this point. Josh Graham’s presence, past and present Neurot members like MGR and Amenra – they all point towards Neurosis’ stature and long-lasting influence, and the fact that they were the first band to be announced for the festival says a lot about their stature. With a sound that seemed to dwarf everyone else’s today, they opt for a slow-burning start with ‘A Sun That Never Sets’, Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till’s alternating vocals almost unnecessary given the strength they both exude, and it’s a great reflection of the emotional impact Neurosis can have, the crowd drifting and lost among the distortion. It only takes a few seconds of ‘Locust Star’ before the crowd are appreciatively cheering and when it erupts, Kelly’s roar cutting through the war-drum pound of Jason Roeder, it marks what must be the physical apex of the night. Nothing can top riffs that huge, surely?
Much like every Neurosis show, they approach their roles with passion and with dogged conviction, Kelly and von Till sweating and violently coaxing out every rasp and riff, even the quietly introspective ones that leave you shivering and cold in their wake, while Roeder and Dave Edwardson attack their positions with sometimes incredible force. For Noah Landis, it’s more of a steady escalation, right up until the point where his violent exertions push his keys over and he’s left on his knees to finish the set. It’s not what you’d call intense but rather a constant pressure, the suffocating touch of ten hands pushing incessantly down on your chest, and all that can be down is to rock and sway with the rhythm to alleviate its effects.
As their hour-and-a-bit nears its end, I realise that I’m not ready for that crush to finish and, thank God, it doesn’t. The full toll is just shy of two hours, pulling in fair chunks of Honor Found In Decay as well as A Sun That Never Sets (the album that I was introduced to the band with) and a handful of standards that are as essential to their show as each member is, with a particularly savage rendition of ‘The Doorway’ paving the way for the night’s closer ‘Stones From The Sky;’ then, sadly, it really is over. It’s difficult not to go all fanboy and gush over performances like this as, honestly, words never quite seems to cut it. These songs reflect nature and man, high art and base metal, primitive brutality and endless layers of complexity, and this is probably why Neurosis are easily the band of the day, and maybe the year.
As a whole, Saturday seemed a much smoother operation than yesterday was. It ironed out a lot of the problems with getting a spot at the main stage, with lighting and with sound, and the calibre of bands, both local and international, were top-notch. Now, it only remains to see whether or not it can be matched tomorrow.
Scribed by: Dave Bowes
Photos by: Antony Roberts (www.metalgigs.co.uk)