Black Flames of Blasphemy V
Helsinki, Finland; 14-15 November, 2014
Text by Jarno Alander | Photography by Tracy T.
It is not easy being a punter at a Finnish rock club or festival. At most venues, the staff seems to be of the opinion that things would proceed perfectly, if only it wasn’t for the audience which has to show and ruin everything.
I am once again reminded of this truism on a freezing November night, as the fifth edition of the Black Flames of Blasphemy festival is about to begin. Or, to be precise, for the first band it already has begun, since judging from the rumble emerging from the second floor of the Nosturi club, Demonic Christ has started playing to an empty hall. In the meantime, the paying audience shivers outside in a queue that moves agonizingly slowly. In the distance, one can see the gatekeeper, who once in a while in his wisdom sees it fit to allow five people at a time to enter the club’s cavernous, empty lobby.
Finally, it is Team Heathen Harvest’s turn. Having paid the mandatory coat-check money for coats we do not have and therefore do not intend to check in, we are finally allowed to climb to the roost which surrounds the main audience area of the club just in time for Dana Duffey of Demonic Christ to announce their last song. This turned out to be ‘Bound to Damnation’.
After Demonic Christ left the stage, we settle in for the wait for the next band. Thankfully, throughout the festival the breaks between bands turned out to be exceptionally short, and the schedules held as far as possible at an event such as this.
Therefore the next band, Ireland’s Malthusian, took the stage quickly. The theories of Thomas Malthus regarding a catastrophic overpopulation have since been discredited by other scientists, but nevertheless, such an apocalypse is (apparently) the theme for Malthusian’s lyrics. The group was formed only two years ago, which is unfortunately apparent, both in their mediocre songwriting and the group’s wobbly live performance. The band also did not even attempt to engage the audience in any way, so the final impression on Malthusian’s own variety of sludge-leaning blackened death metal was quite colorless and irrelevant. Still, Malthusian’s only release to date (to my knowledge)—the EP/demo MMXIII—is far from hopeless, so while there is much room for improvement, it is possible that such an improvement may yet happen in the future (and equally plausible that it won’t.)
Next were Finland’s Behexen, who have already spent ages wandering steadfastly and with no compromises towards the heart of darkness. Vocalist Hoath Torog began the gig by casting a Satanic spell on the venue, asking the Lord of Darkness himself to channel His dark energies through the members of the band. Such an act would have been intensely embarrassing if performed by some black metal hobbyist, which wasn’t the case here: Behexen’s show from the beginning to the end was a sincere demonstration of a credible and willful dedication to their cause. The years have not taken their toll on the band, either: on this night at Nosturi, they sounded just as dark, evil, and ritualistic as they always have. Of the band’s live line-up, in addition to Torog, the demonic pocket rocket Evisc was fun to follow on stage.
After Behexen, there were noticeable ripples of excitement running through the numerous German-speaking members of the audience. Of the first day’s early bands, Switzerland’s Bölzer was the most anticipated by myself, as well.
The Swiss duo’s concept—combining crushing riffs with cosmic grandeur—is definitely original. Unfortunately, in a live setting the latter part only works to full effect here and there—a situation I am prepared to understand, given the fact that the band really does operate on a skeleton crew by metal standards. Many have reported hearing echoes of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost in Bölzer’s sound, an impression which seems valid to me and not only because of their country of origin either. Also, guitarist-vocalist KzR is an impressive presence on stage: half Chuck Schuldiner, half Zakk Wylde. The audience was clearly very pleased with the gig, and Bölzer’s very existence confirms the vitality and regenerative capacity of metal. I will continue to follow them with interest.
As impressive as Bölzer’s performance was in the final analysis, the first one to really bring the house down was Taake. Hoest strutted around on stage in a hooded cape, which made him look like half a Ringwraith from of a Tolkien novel and half an escapee from a leper colony. The inner lining of the cape was, appropriately enough, an enormous Norwegian flag. It is always easy to win extra points from a Finnish audience by drinking showily on stage, while saying ‘kippis’ (Finnish for ‘cheers’), and Hoest definitely knows this. Taake’s confident, almost arrogant attitude on stage, combined with their killer song repertoire, made them the first real highlight of day one.
After Taake finished their set, the first signs of battle weariness began to manifest themselves in the crowd. Nargaroth was not the best performer imaginable to help them summon a second wind, either—the band’s performance was that routine and banal. Resorting to cliché is always suspect, but this time I cannot help it: Ash and company’s performance was a showcase of Teutonic precision and efficiency but quite lacking in soul and conviction; this from a band that will soon have existed for two decades. Nargaroth’s routine headbanging and their endless showing of the goat horns to the audience made me think that the only reason they do it is because everyone else does it too.
Nargaroth’s last number, ‘Seven Tears Are Flowing to the River’, seemed to attempt Wagnerian grandiosity and pathos, but succeeded in simply sounding dull and wooden. It also seemed to last even longer than on record, but surely that is not possible. Nargaroth have their own large and devoted following, so I hope they experienced what they came for from the group’s set. I am not one in their ranks, and based on this performance, have will never have a desire to be.
Finally, it was time for the most anticipated band of the whole festival, and the second band of the day to be named after the word for “fog” in their home country’s language: Poland’s Mgla.
To the delight of the impatient audience, the break was once again commendably short, and soon the curtain parted, revealing everyone’s favorite Polish masked madmen. The audience already had been pummeled by no less than six other black metal bands immediately before, but any weariness was instantly swept aside like so much dust by the sheer strength and conviction of Mgla’s performance.
Could one sense a minor stiffness in the band’s playing, possibly due to the short time they have been playing live? Were the sounds ever so slightly garbled or over-saturated? Who knows, and who cares? There is definitely some harsh, final, and unspoken truths about human life that Mgla manage to convey through their music.
After the band had hammered their way through their set (ending with ‘With Hearts Toward None VII’), there came a moment which no one gathered at Nosturi will soon forget. A hulking slab of a man, wearing the Mgla garb, ambled on stage. In lieu of an introduction, the band began to pound out a cover of Clandestine Blaze’s ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’, to deafening cheers from the audience. This was followed by ‘Fist of the Northern Destroyer’. For a fleeting moment, we were allowed to channel some ancestral defiance, and to feel that not all of us are yet mere sheep, shuffling blindly to the slaughterhouse. How can music that is so full of hate and aggression be at the same time so uplifting?
Thus ended the first night of the festival. Some of the audience would remember it for the rest of their lives, while many others would not remember it at all. The floor was so sticky with spilled beer that it was necessary to take care to keep one’s shoes off of it with every step to avoid getting stuck. Beer cans, crushed underfoot, created miniature canyons and ridges along the paths towards the exits. Passed out people sat on the floor leaning on the walls. I found one in the gentleman’s room, as well. Some drunk females were crying, others raged at their boyfriends, or at other drunk females. In other words, it had been a fucking awesome night!
The next day I arrived late at Nosturi. Of the earlier bands I missed, the only one I regret not seeing is Black Witchery. The band reminds me of Cannibal Corpse or even AC/DC in the sense that, having found their niche, they obviously intend to occupy it until Ragnarok without bothering themselves with any thoughts of developing or revamping their sound or image. On the other hand, I suppose this means that there may well be another chance to see them next year, or even ten years from now.
I made it to the venue just as Archgoat was starting to fling their overcooked porridge of death to the walls of the club. They deserve credit for sticking to their guns through their long career (which is the only way to know for sure that someone meant it in the first place), but in all honesty, I got my fill of their straight-forward, riff-based metal and monotonous grunted vocals before they were even halfway through their set. Very tellingly, at some point the strap of Angelslayer’s bass gave way and the instrument hit the deck, with no noticeable change in the band’s sound for better or worse.
The Netherland’s Countess is an entirely new acquaintance to me. More than once the band’s music veered dangerously close to Mitteleuropean power metal. Also, am I being unfair if I say that vocalist/bassist Orlok made a fool of himself by appropriating Bruce Dickinson’s signature phrase, ‘scream for me Helsinki’, not once, but twice, or is there something here that I do not know or understand?
Countess finished their (overly long) set with a song titled ‘Hell’s Rock’n’Roll’. However, in my opinion, the place for rock’n’roll or heavy metal songs about rock’n’roll or heavy metal is at open air festivals in the German or Swedish countryside.
Besides, why sing about rock’n’roll or metal, when you can play it?
…which is what One Tail, One Head next proceeded to do, managing to squeeze out a drop of the passion and rebellion that originally fueled rock music. Still, there is an undeniably contrived element to their chaotic stage antics. Many have been extremely skeptical about One Tail, One Head, and although I did enjoy their set, certain doubts still remain in my mind, too—not only regarding their live act, but also their ultimately rather flimsy song material. I had approached the group with an interview request shortly before the show, but was turned down, due to a full-length album the band is apparently working on. I was told that they wish to give interviews only once the album is out. Let’s hope the record will finally clarify just what One Tail, One Head is all about.
After One Tail, One Head had finished their set, I had to leave the venue for extramusical reasons. Missing Morbosidad did not seem like a great loss, but having to give Absu a miss definitely stings. Hopefully I will have a chance to rectify the situation one day.
Summa summarum: a few great bands, no outright flops, all the others somewhere in between on the continuum. For me, all the highlights came on the first day. Even though I did not even see all of Saturday’s bands, I was still starting to feel the festival taking its toll towards the end. This was a demanding—yet ultimately rewarding—event.
Despite the criticisms above (which is directed at the staff of the venue, not the organizers of Black Flames of Blasphemy), it must be admitted that putting together a weekend like this is quite an achievement. Not everyone could have kept the whole package from falling apart as well as was done with this fifth installment of the festival. The sixth edition has already been confirmed for November 2015.