Sunday nights are most people’s wind downs, an evening to sit in semi-comfortable silence, nursing hangovers, doing the last of the weeks’ meal prep and half-mindlessly mulling over the existential angst of yet another week of indentured wage slavery in the office cubicle or construction site.
Not for the people attending Direct Underground Fest. Tonight was a fierce celebration, a fantastic explosion of fierceness, creativity and showmanship to leave punters ready to punch a car in half with their bare hands afterwards. Metaphorically, of course.
A diverse crowd of t-shirts sporting fandom for everything from Porcupine Tree, Enslaved, Nasum and Cannibal Corpse was one indicator of the diversity on offer here. ’s Encircling Sea reinforced this notion with their eclectically and sonically huge blend of post-metal and black metal. Beginning kneeling on the floor to adjust loops and feedback, the frontman and one of three guitarists stood upright, staunch, to push out a wall of thick, viscous riffs and visceral barks.
The band swaying with the riffs like trees, there was a glorious pastiche of Neurosis-style walls of riffs and long, forlorn, echo-heavy arpeggios settled between patches of furious black metal aggression. Neither style detracted from one another, however. Brooding under dim blue lights, the guitarists and bassist made chopping motions from their instruments as their music ascended in intensity. Unsurprising, either; the viscous sonic soup they left behind was palpable.
Bringing up a ritualistic logo on the amps and stepping onstage, Wiegedood were two members short of the prior act. Nevertheless, this did not get in the way of their ferocious wall of sound. The guitarists’ long hair draped over his face, a wildly-haired frontman and a drummer hell-bent on thrashing his kit; these three brought forth a wall of endless, trilling tremolo, blasts, rasps and shrieks. With some very quiet down-tempo sections, everyone from the bar to the front could be heard as very softly applied chords and arpeggios rang once or twice for a few bars here and there. There was even a moment that cracked the band up whereabouts they made an entire group of punters not paying attention jump simultaneously as they thrust immediately back into blasting sections. Such was the stop/start dichotomy between quiet and furious. The trio thrashed through the set, headbanging like madmen and exiting without show-ponying or theatrics.
With a fair few bands to get through and not much further ado, Diocletian stepped forth as a hooded, tattooed troupe not much later on, immediately blasting and grimacing down from the stage. It was obvious they were beholden to scorch and lay absolute waste at even greater pace, raising the venue from elevated blood pressure to full-blown hypertension from the get-go. Sporting a medieval-styled logo in the background, studded gauntlets and simple black, there was little time for fanfare as ringing feedback and heavily fuzz-distorted bass gave way to furious and relentless blasting and piercing tremolo guitars.
Lurching and stomping like a giant from ‘Skyrim’, the singer held his head aloft, roaring, shrieking as his bandmates kept their heads low, bobbing their heads ceremoniously in unison through the twisting menagerie of riffs. With complete unrepentant fever, they stormed through their set in a chaotic whirlwind of blasting, the drummers’ left hand somehow not snapping off from his brutalising of the snare. Save for a few punky breakdowns here and there, the tempo never dropped below revolutions-per-minute of a roaring engine, a snarling tumultuous cavalcade in constant high gear. Cue the bands’ sudden exit at the end of their set, the fans a mob of stunned mullets and raucous applause.
Making a well-earnt break amongst the endless procession of blastbeats and tremolo was the incredible riff-machine monster that is Americans Revocation. Sporting a completely different ambience to the bands that came before, the feel of these thrashing tyrants was more upbeat and closer to stereotypically ‘metal’ live bands. What is meant by that? Endless windmilling, headbanging, jumping around, thrash-tastic riffs and splendidly technical but tasty solos from the frontman himself. On either side, both the second guitarist and bassist proved equally proficient in outletting throaty death growls, roars, gang chants alongside the incredibly intricate web of scale runs, riffs and chords. The endless procession of technical yet melodic riffage brought the crowd alight, as did frontman Davidson’s humour such as when he reminded the crowd ‘we’re not here to f*** spiders!’.
With a lock-step solid drummer in the background cascading and endless stream of rolls, fills and chokes, and a bassist with enough low-end to fill a volcano, the intricate fretboard trickery and hardcore-inflected death barks, the classic metal vibe of the performance did not undermine the bands’ actual heaviness. Darting around the stage, smiling, cheering and fist-pumping, this is the one band out of all from tonight who brought the party. Ending with a completely face-melting, genre-transcending solo to rival Van Halen (seriously), the band ended their set to a candidly classic whole band breakdown, lights flashing and smiles aplenty.
In the interim between bands, audience members scoffed at the kitsch inverted wooden crosses being dragged onstage, along with the skulls and bones draped in black robes. The dark ambient backing complete with church bells, hymns and whooshing noises added to the stereotypical black metal aura. However, apart from some almost Gollum-sounding monologues between songs, the firestorm brutality unleashed by blackened death metal warlords Belphegor was no laughing matter. Drenched in blood and corpsepaint, playing his guitar in the vertical position like a sceptre and standing in front of what looked like a candelabra mic stand, the venomous frontman spat, shrieked and roared bilious sermons one after another.
A ridiculously high-speed unrelenting drummer with chest-thumping typewriter style double kicks windmilled and thrashed so hard it was amazing he could keep a beat. In front of him, the bassist held his low-end instrument aloft, shrill backing shrieks piercing the mix whilst both guitarists ripped solo after solo. Gesturing to the crowd, hands held aloft and posing in a crucifix position, the entire performance by the band oozed a mischievously occultist feel. Thundering relentlessly through their entire set with a flourish of blasts and searing, almost painfully sharp tremolo, the penultimate act brought the heaviest set of the evening. There was a small pause following the finale as audience members reeled in shock momentarily before roaring with applause.
As the stage was cleared of camp Satanic paraphernalia, a simple drumkit, keyboard and couple of small amps were all that remained onstage for the mighty Ihsahn. Not much more was needed, however, as the man and his incredibly talented backing band brought a presence larger than life itself. Sporting simple black regalia, the man and his troupe betrayed their minimalist stage getup with a swirling and complex array of musical phenomena. The humble, soft-spoken and grateful composer proved himself every bit as talented and adaptive as his studio efforts would have you believe. Moving a whole gamut of genres from past Emperor material (e.g. ‘Thus Spake the Nightspirit’, ‘I Am The Black Wizards’ and ‘Inno A Satana’, to ravenous reaction), through to the arena-styled rock of ‘Until I Too Dissolve’ and the prog phantasm ‘Frozen Lakes of Mars’, Ihsahn proved his ability to glide effortlessly through a multitude of musical forms.
Shapeshifting through croons, shrieks, blistering solos, simple riffs and melodies and interplaying very subtly between the second guitarist (also a rabid guitar soloist), insanely precise drummer and hugely creative, expansive keyboardist, the man gave each member some time and respect with his full attention, playing and bouncing off them. The melodic chameleon spellbound a completely enraptured audience with his prolific, diverse playing and showmanship, holding a place of both raw power and humility. Following up the much-adored Emperor tracks with a completely Earth-shattering dirge via ‘The Grave’, the man followed up more upbeat tracks with a crushing, atonal saxophone assisted suicide, a clawing closer that reached a climactic crescendo that nearly collapsed space and time itself.
Tonight’s festival was a hand-picked selection of musical greats, a feat of extraordinary musical extremity and power where everyone from the virtuoso mastermind himself and his fellow bands had a chance to fiercely extol the strength, power and divinity that is the metal underground even to this day.