Rarely is there such a drastic disconnect, to the point of cognitive dissonance, between the performance quality and aesthetic decisions of the opening bands and the touring package as their was at this show. It’s rare, in the contemporary moment and in a major city, to see a complete and utter lack of curation when it comes to the openers on a bill, especially one as venerable as this.
What happened as a result of this extreme curatorial laziness, however, was a show that ended up being a brilliant illustration of the difference between pomposity, posturing and genuine stage presence. The jarring juxtaposition in the way the openers and headliners conducted themselves on stage was a perfect illustration of the difference between that which is all sound and fury, signifying nothing, and genuine power.
Walking up the steps to the Annex Wreckroom, there was already someone busily mopping up a trail of blood. “Did someone get hurt already?” I asked, wondering what could have happened to result in that much gore all over the place.
The mop-wielder rolled his eyes. “It’s fake.”
Walking into the venue proper, it was immediately apparent where the blood had come from: the singer of openers Deiphagia had smeared it all over his face and matted it in his dreads, and appeared to have made an attempt at drawing a rough inverted cross on his chest. Had they just shut up and played, their set would have been lacklustre, but ultimately inoffensive and easily forgettable. They played blunt, barking “technical” death metal, with blackened elements, unimpressive and juvenile, but not enough to draw ire. Even the guitar player and drummer’s cheap monster masks and brightly coloured nylon dreadfalls wouldn’t have been worth mocking if not for the sheer repugnance of the vocalist. Snorting and heaving like a troll, he declared that the apocalyptic-themed “Planet Cracker” was actually about “the guitarist fucking his fat fucking girlfriend,” delivering this with a sideways sneer as though it was the pinnacle of comedy. Later, he announced that he was a scholar of 18th-century history and that “Jack the Ripper was a fucking visionary. All the whores must die!” This was to introduce a little ditty called “I Cut Her Another Hole To Fuck With.”
What stood out most keenly was how vocalist Jeremy “Wrath” Brain was desperately trying to appear edgy and, in the process, spewing some of the most status-quo, boring proclamations imaginable. In a world where slut-shaming, violence against women and sex workers, and fat-shaming are a part of every media campaign, every news headline, his attempts to sound evil fell entirely flat. Where their music may have inspired nothing more than bland dislike, his stage banter inspired a combination of outright hostility and profound boredom all rolled into one.
The perfect metaphor for their set can be found in an unfortunate side-effect of Brain’s overzealous application of fake blood: throughout the performance, viscous red fluid dribbled down his back in a thin rivulet, pooling horribly in the crack of his butt. A sweaty ass full of fake blood perfectly encapsulated my feelings towards Deiphagia.
The next act were nearly as ill-fitting, but for entirely different reasons. Schizoid have been a part of the heavy and electronic music scenes in Toronto since 1998. Fusing elements of industrial, hardcore, noise and metal, their sound was a completely disparate element to the structure of the show as a whole. Led by the eponymous J. Schizoid, their currently incarnation features J. on vocals, “Talixzen Panguish” (sigh) on electronics, live noise and backing vocals, and Frank Contamination on bass. Their aesthetic is rooted firmly in 1997-era goth, industrial and electronica, from the ultra-shiny parachute bondage pants to Panguish’s station being decked out with lava lamps, plasma balls and an oscillating emergency light.
Everything about the set felt out of place, from the projections (composed of mainstream film clips, like Terminator), to the squalling, blackened industrial. The backing vocals were distorted and tortured enough to be interesting, but the overall impression was one of sharp, throbbing noise that remained primarily shapeless. Their visual aesthetic was a dated attempt to appear as sleek and slick as possible, all sharp angles, B.S. Rich Warlocks and vinyl pants, and every single crack and anxiety was glaringly apparent. J. Schizoid himself appeared as unsure how to relate to his audience as they were watching him. He introduced “Epitaph” by saying the song was titled such “because we scream ‘Epitaph’ a lot,” and his stage banter also included the gem, “This next song is about Pain! It is called ‘Pain!’”
Schizoid’s set failed not because it was offensive, but because it fit the rest of the show so poorly, and the band were so keenly aware of the resulting awkwardness that the performance gradually dissolved into a vortex of cognitive friction.
Finally, the first of the touring bands, Quebec’s Obscurcis Romancia, took the stage and in the opening moments of the first song, blew a fuse on one of their amps, forcing them to perform the rest of their set with only one guitar player. While they were clearly disappointed at this turn of events, they handled it fantastically well. They initially paused the set to fix the problem, and their keyboard player (who was brilliant the entire set, body curled over the keys, playing with the ecstasy and focus of a concert pianist) performed a classical interlude. When it quickly became apparent that the problem was more serious, the rhythm guitarist stepped aside and allowed the set to continue in his absence.
Their sound unites aggression and bleakness with the richness of deep melancholia. The emotional core they drill into is not the gothic romanticism frequently associated with incarnations of melodic black metal, but rather melancholy in the classic literary sense. Their songs explore the exact texture and timbre of mourning; the delicate intersection between memory and memorial – the seams between the fabric between dissatisfaction and desire.
All of this depth and vast emotional range was delivered with the trademark acrid violence of black metal, but the content also transformed the music. Rather than the frosty guitars and gelid cymbal crashes usually associated with the genre, their tone was suffused with a blood heat. The momentum of the sound seemed to well up as from a deep arterial wound. It was lovely music, one that created release by emotional exsanguination rather than a more aggressive catharsis
The crowd, who had been sullenly huddled close to the back of the room, creeping forward tentatively during Obcursis Romacia’s set, suddenly swelled and began to gather upfront for Anaal Nathrakh’s set. The moment that vocalist Dave Hunt jogged onto the stage and the throbbing wall of anguish that was “In The Constellation of the Black Widow” began, the audience erupted in violent ecstasy. There had been a tension gathering in the room, a potential for catharsis that each of the other acts had denied in their own way, and suddenly now it was possible. Four of us huddled at the corner of the stage, one smaller woman actually climbing up onto it, and sheltering behind a monitor, to avoid the worst of the storm.
Hunt took the opportunity provided by “Volenti Non Fit Injuria” (“to he who consents, no injury can be done”) to address the crowd’s enthusiasm, encouraging everyone to do what ever they needed as long as everyone was having a good time, “but no testosterone, no meathead bullshit. Don’t make me come down there.” He also stated that anyone so inclined “was cordially invited to ascend the stage,” though noted they were responsible for anything that might happen as a result. At one point, at least ten young men gathered on stage, a chorus line of headbanging, until Hunt laughingly shoved them off one by one.
The set ranged into their older material, though nothing before When Fire Rains Down From The Sky, Mankind Will Reap As It Has Sown, from which they performed the titular track. It was fascinating to feel, viscerally, the band’s musical evolution as they leapt across their catalogue. The older, rawer and more extreme black metal seemed to rake across the surface of the flesh, whereas the newer material, tinged with doom and even industrial, went deeper, an intramuscular throb and ache, nicking bone. Their latest album, Vanitas, is notable for the inclusion of more clean vocals than they have previously incorporated, something that Hunt made use of throughout the set, contrasting spitting and snarling with soaring clean passages that sounded as if he was switching between speaking in tongues and prophecy.
“The Lucifer Effect” brought another opportunity for Hunt to address the crowd, noting that we all have a little devil inside us, the potential for evil, something that we can never remove. “We’re human, so we’re all a little awful,” Hunt mused before the song battered the already sore crowd even further. The goal of the set, for all its force, was not exorcism, but cathartic celebration, an acknowledgement of darker impulses with a safe place to express that, with no false pretence towards redemption. Hunt addressed the crowd with gravity and dignity, confidence and composure, and the occasional lip-curl or sardonic amusement, always perfectly at ease and in control. The entire band displayed a maturity that stood out even more in contrast to the non-touring acts.
This show was the very first time that the Birmingham, UK band, who have been around since 1999, have performed in Canada. They left the crowd wrung out, exhausted, bloody and grinning like mad. I sincerely hope they deign to visit again soon.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.