COVENANT FESTIVAL DAYS II & III
July 12+13, 2015 | Vancouver, BC, Canada | Hindenburg & Rickshaw Theatre
Ritual Necromancy | Holocaust Lord | Dire Omen | Weregoat | Scythe Bearer
Rites of Thy Degringolade | Mitochondrion | Funeral Circle | Deathwinds
Garroting Deep | The Nausea
Photography by Ian Campbell & Keshia Erickson
Written by Conor Fynes
I had originally planned to write a separate article for each of the three nights of the Covenant Festival. I reconsidered this course of action by the end of the second day; instead, I’ve decided to approach the second and third nights of Covenant within a single article. This certainly is not because there is less to say about the second night, nor are the bands that performed it any more or less worthy of their own showcase. Quite the opposite, in fact; a ‘middle child’ in the series would almost certainly have received the runt’s share of the exposure. In my memory, Friday was a blend of Thursday and Saturday nights; the venue (albeit more crowded) was the same as the first, but the prevailing musical styles had far more in common with the final night.
Regardless, the first incarnation of the Covenant Festival is over, and the experience of Vancouver’s premier extreme music festival currently exists only in the memory of those who were there. While the circumstances of those three nights will never be quite replicated, there remains the distinct possibility (read: probability) that another Covenant will occur around the same time next year. The potential that it could flourish into an annual event played into my anticipation. Following such a resounding success, I’d be surprised if the Pacific-Northwest doesn’t see a Covenant II arise sometime in 2016. Of course, any future exploits will have a high standard to match. While the Covenant Festival may have fallen somewhat short of its intended ritualistic aspect, I’d be hard-pressed to find another show, ‘local’ or otherwise, that offered such a rich concentration of profound performances, moments, and memories.
While Thursday night had felt like the odd one out with its predominantly heavy-metal-themed bill, the lineup for the two days following were cut from the same cloth, so to speak. While I had mentioned in my first article that I believed the Covenant emphasized the common tone and occult intent of bands regardless of genre, Friday and Saturday made absolutely clear which genres the people behind the festival wished to align themselves with most. With few exceptions, the music was offered in varying shades of black metal, death metal, and (most abundantly) blackened death metal. While novitiates may find the concept monotonous, I truly think Covenant’s desire to specialize lent itself better to an all-encompassing experience than the average North American metal festivities, which seem to want to be everything, to everyone, whenever possible.
Of course, those who know will agree that no degree of specialization could truly feel samey when enough talented people are involved in the making of an event. When all is said and done, could the primitive, Neanderthal rage of Weregoat really be compared to the oppressive focus of Ritual Necromancy, much less the cosmic disarray of Mitochondrion? Even considering the festival now a couple of days after the fact, each performance imprinted itself on me in some way. Even purely as a gathering of artists, the Covenant has done incredibly well to distinguish itself from other festivals. While a handful of the bands were unbeknownst to me prior to the festival (I hadn’t heard Deathwinds except as their previous incarnation as Radioactive Vomit, and the ambient openers for Nights 2 and 3 were also fresh names to me), it may be the first—and, to date, only—case where I was anticipating every band on a multi-night festival’s bill.
Having been puzzled by the three hours Covenant had scheduled between the doors opening and the first band on the first night, I decided to catch an early evening screening of the new Mad Max film before heading to the Hindenburg, getting there at 21:00 for ritual opener Scythe Bearer‘s set. Scythe Bearer (along with the Nausea, Saturday night’s opening act) were arguably the most anomalous acts of the festival, carving dark ambient soundscapes opposite in style but remotely comparable in atmosphere to the ‘odes to sin’ that prevailed throughout the rest of Covenant. Experiencing ambient music unfold in a live setting bears a mark of spontaneity that none in rock nor metal could justly facsimulate. Other live ambient-relative performances I’ve seen—such as Mamiffer opening for Anathema in 2013, or Hive Mind touring alongside Cult of Youth the year after that—left profound impressions on me. While Scythe Bearer and the Nausea effectively doubled as ritualistic commencement for their respective nights, I enjoyed the atmosphere that both brought on their own terms. While Scythe Bearer’s set was less than perfect (with equipment tumbling over), their sound experimentation was well-suited to the Hindenburg’s claustrophobic stage. I wasn’t as enthralled by the Nausea, a solo act with heart and style fixed on drawing texture and noise from an electric violin, but she managed to set the right tone for the show. If the Covenant Festival develops to accommodate as such, I’d love to see more ambient and experimental acts grace its stage.
The second night was the most primitive night of the three, in more ways than one. While I was familiar with the Hindenburg from the night before, the atmosphere on Friday was significantly more crowded—certainly rowdier. Although the traditional weekly day of hedonism brought with it a greater proportion of degenerates, I think the majority of people there still had their attention focused on the bands. First up following Scythe Bearer on the second night was Holocaust Lord, black thrashers added to the festival at the eleventh hour to replace Auroch. In my first article, I wrote that the bands playing Covenant felt bound by a common sense of seriousness in their intent. Holocaust Lord’s speed and booze-fuelled thrash was in no shortage of energy and references to the occult, but their style and presentation felt oddly placed on the bill. Their volume seemed twice over any other act in the festival, and it marked the only time I saw an authentic mosh pit break out. For what they set out to do, I think Holocaust Lord did a great job; their thrash has a strong bite to it, and while the rest of the band felt static stage-wise, front-man Phlegathon boasted an amazing presence. Then again, if I’m correct in the impression that Covenant means to be a more solemn event than the average metal festival, Holocaust Lord didn’t seem to fit. There is some justification in the fact that they were a last-minute choice; Auroch would have fit the bill more accordingly. Better still, Phlegathon’s other band, Burialkult, could have been an inspired choice of fill-in.
Weregoat were quite likely the most crushing band of the second night. Where bands in war metal employ most of the same tactics, there are bands that ‘get it’, and bands that do not. Weregoat undoubtedly fit into the former category, with a primitive stage presence to meet their equally Neanderthalic music. Edmonton’s Dire Omen were the band I most anticipated from the second night, and while I don’t think their set had the proper clarity to showcase the deceptive sophistication in their music, I wasn’t bored for a minute across their relatively lengthy set of eldritch death metal. When it finally came time for Dark Descent masters Ritual Necromancy, midnight had long since struck, but I’m glad I stuck around. Their set marked one of the few times I was authentically chilled by live death vocals; Justin Friday looks incredibly reserved as he bellows into the microphone. This impression extends to the rest of the band as well. While the lion’s share of Covenant performances were lively, Ritual Necromancy’s statuesque stage presence gave their set the most inhuman sense of any that played that weekend. Of all the bands I saw, they were the ones I’d want to see the most again. By some stroke of fortune, the Covenant has just announced they’ll be hosting Ritual Necromancy again with the almighty Bölzer later on this year.
The second night was probably the most chaotic of the three, if you take into account the tumbling equipment, issues with volume, sense of overcrowdedness, and unwelcome spirits in the form of a lobster someone brought out partway into Ritual Necromancy’s set. I think the fact alone that it fell upon a Friday played into some of the night’s less welcome aspects, but the festival’s middle child nonetheless played out as a great success.
Friday night also gave me the opportunity to check out the vendors in some greater detail. Among them, I think the Cavity Curiosity Shop (having come over from Victoria, BC) was the most interesting, carrying a wide variety of items, from Triptykon records to occult tomes, naval novels by Nicholas Monsarrat, and old VHS tapes of David Cronenberg films. Salt Salamander Curio offered a greater focus on occult merchandise, which arguably offered the most interesting window shopping of the entire festival. As always, the Ross Bay Cult stand carried the most presence and weight about it. Given the influence that tribe has had on so many of the bands that played the festival, their inclusion as a merch attraction certainly added weight to the experience of Covenant as a whole.
I think moving the third night to a new venue with the Rickshaw Theatre gave the final act of Covenant Festival a sense of greater scope and importance. There’s something like the Rickshaw in virtually every city, so you’ll know the type when you hear it; a somewhat dilapidated, ratty, and relatively cheap venue, with everything you’d need to stage a mid-sized metal show, and little more than that. I get the disdain people have had for the Rickshaw; I personally think the added space was worth more than the loss of the atmosphere that the Hindenburg brought. Needless to say, the new venue brought a different feel to the proceedings. I do wonder how things would have turned out had Saturday night’s events taken place back at the Hindenburg. I imagine things would have been more crowded than a North Korean internment camp.
Again, with Saturday night the Covenant organizers proved that the most integral piece to a festival’s success is its selection of powerful, mutually complimentary talent. Garotting Deep destroyed the venue with an exceptional stage presence and strong grasp of atmospheric death metal. Their riffs were generally more reserved and grounded than the technical whirlwinds I’ve usually heard guitarist (and festival co-organizer) Sebastian Montesi play in Auroch. Most of all, Garotting Deep’s set floored me with the most incendiary drum performance of the festival; on top of his frantic drum pyrotechnics, percussive mastermind Phil K. manned lead vocals, alternating between growls and shrieks and destroying effortlessly with both. Their cover of Dead Can Dance‘s ‘Black Sun’ stands as one of the festival’s highlights in my mind.
Deathwinds, like the ambient openers, would be a hard band to have known much about prior to the show. There’s virtually nothing about them online save for some demos, which were solid enough to get me interested in hearing them. I didn’t find out until I was at the show that they’re something of a continuation of Radioactive Vomit, a war metal band I saw perform once as an opener for Mitochondrion. Their grasp of Blasphemy-derived black/death metal is capable, although I can’t say much more than that. Having done away with the go-to gas masks and chains, Deathwinds had a more minimal stage persona than I remembered them circa Radioactive Vomit. It’s undeniable that they filled the venue with their pungent atmosphere, but I don’t think they made the genre’s conventions their own the way that Weregoat did the night before.
The three final acts undoubtedly felt the most significant, both from an experiential and historical standpoint. It was a night of ends and returns; while the apparent reunion show of Rites of Thy Degringolade (following a decade of silence) has been the most widely publicized element of Covenant Festival (and rightly so), this night also felt significant for the fact that it was Funeral Circle‘s last show together. [Editor’s Note: This was in fact not Funeral Circle’s final show, but a farewell for Matt Barzegar. He has now been replaced by Matt Emery.] Funeral Circle have been a big name in the local Vancouver scene for nearly a decade now and are the face behind the current dialogue for traditional doom metal. Guitarist and band leader Matthew Barzegar‘s move to Montreal has limited the band’s activity indefinitely. Despite the fact that they’ve been around for years, it was my first time seeing them play. I liked their combination of Candlemass‘s over-the-top dynamics with a style somewhat closer to that of Reverend Bizarre. Their show felt surprisingly emotional, almost painfully so. It was as much a goodbye between band members as it was for the fans. My favourite moment of the night was probably when Matt Emery (whom I’d heard front Order of the Solar Temple two nights prior) jumped on stage to duet with Funeral Circle’s frontman. Was this long goodbye more emotional than might have been appropriate for the Covenant’s occult aims? Probably, but it still counts among the coolest experiences that show had to offer.
Now, as for Mitochondrion: They’re a band I’ve seen perform several times over the years, and even so, they were the band I was most excited to see play again. Time and again, they’ve taken their genius-tier death metal to the utter reaches in concert. At once, experiencing Mitochondrion was the most visceral part of Covenant Festival, yet simultaneously the most cerebral and challenging of the lot. Between their masterful debut Archaeaon, or their cosmic follow-up in Parasignosis, Mitochondrion are one of the few bands in modern death metal that manage to make the studio and production as much a part of their experience as anything else, with howls and gutturals clanging back and forth between each ear. Although their studio material begs to be experienced with headphones, they manage to bring that maelstrom to their live performance every time. Co-headlining the Covenant may be the best time I’ve seen them yet, with an even more frantic stage performance than I last remembered. Often drowned out by the bass, I would have liked to have heard the guitars mixed a little higher, but there is no arguing with the feeling of a stomach pleasantly churning in awe of a performance you cannot quite wrap your head around.
Rites of Thy Degringolade’s association with the Canadian ‘war’ scene may be justified by the bands they’ve aligned themselves with in the past, but it doesn’t show so much in their style, which took a more technical approach to traditional black metal. Their final album, An Ode to Sin, would warrant a swift recommendation to any so-called fan of black metal who hasn’t yet heard it. Having laid dormant for so long, I wasn’t sure what to expect from them live; regardless of the status they’ve garnered for their past works, it has been a portion of a lifetime since Rites of Thy Degringolade has done anything. Although it may have paled in comparison to the fine-tuned cosmos of Mitochondrion before them, I think Rites… played a solid set, and a were suitable end to Covenant Festival. Hiatus notwithstanding, they operated as a tight trio, with drumwork that rivalled that of Garrotting Deep a few hours before them. Seeing the two guitarists from Mitochondrion come up and perform a quick ‘ritual’ (read: black metal with enough vocalists onstage to rival the Beach Boys or ABBA) was a pleasantly unexpected turn. I was a little surprised that Rites of Thy Degringolade’s set ended so abruptly shortly after, however. There wasn’t really anything to sound of the festivities. It wasn’t the first time in the night (much less the festival) that a band had nonchalantly stepped off stage after playing, but I suppose I was expecting to see a more climactic end to a three-day barrage.
Whatever the case, I arrived at home with a sense of exhilaration to temper the fatigue that resulted from three late and loud nights. The first and second acts for the Covenant Festival were impressive evenings on their own, but the third was truly demonstrable proof of this event’s potential to rise and develop as a stronghold of extreme music in North America. Are there things that might have been improved? Sure, and I wouldn’t have expected anything otherwise; all things considered, Vancouver has a solid black and death metal scene, and I don’t think there’s been an event here that’s paid as focused and profound a tribute to that fact.