October 23, 2016 | London, UK | Our Black Heart
Written by: Colin Z. Robertson
Our Black Heart is a small venue—a room above a Camden pub. There had been intimations on Facebook that this would be the last ever chance to see Blood Axis playing live, so it should have been no surprise that we would pack the venue, making it a hot, sweaty place despite the cold autumnal evening.
The support was provided by Lloyd James’s band, Naevus. I’ve seen James playing solo before but was very glad to see him backed up with a full band on this occasion. Though they’re often associated with the neofolk scene, they perhaps draw more of their influences from post-punk music, and it’s with a full band that this really becomes apparent: hypnotic drum rhythms, a powerful bass, and the anger in James’s vocals all coming from that direction. While the first few songs were subdued, the band provided the muscle needed for an intense performance of ‘Mistakes’, with James snarling and shouting the final verses. They were at their most intriguing while playing a couple of songs from the forthcoming album, Curses, including the title track and ‘The Pit’, the latter of which has a wonderful subtlety to it. They dedicated their last piece, ‘Dominic Song’, to John Murphy, who was a member of Naevus for some years. Their performance set the mood perfectly for the rest of the evening.
Opening with ‘Herjafather’, a trance-inducing call to Odin, the first half of Blood Axis’s show was one of quiet songs. Their setting to music of Herman Hesse’s poem, ‘Erwachen in der Nacht’, provided a beautiful second piece, full of melancholy and yearning, with Annabel Lee’s violin and Robert Ferbrache’s guitar creating a richer, denser sound than you would have expected from just those two instruments. Then, setting another poem to music, this time an Old English poem by an unknown author, they continued with a gritty performance of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’. Lee took over vocals for ‘The Path’, and while it felt like they only hit their stride after the first verse, by the end of the song they were captivating. Throughout these songs, the only percussion was provided by Michael Moynihan with a hand-held drum, out of which he coaxed such a variety of sounds as to make any other percussion unnecessary. On ‘Song of the Comrade’ in particular, the drumming provided a rich texture that underpinned the tune, while Lee’s accordion rounded out the sound.
The mood changed when they played ‘Wir Rufen Deine Wölfe’, with Annabel Lee inviting us to sing along to this exuberant ‘beer hall song’, and sing we did. This was the start of a louder, more aggressive sequence of songs, including ‘Storm of Steel’ and a thunderous rendition of ‘Reign I Forever’. For many of these songs, there was a pre-recorded backing of drums and loops. Of course, it would be wonderful to hear these songs performed live with a full band, but when three people have come across the Atlantic to play in a small venue, it would be churlish to complain about such things. I was enormously grateful to have them here at all.
On stage, Moynihan is a man of few words, and Ferbrache was silent, playing his guitar seated, focused only on the music. But Annabel Lee more than compensated for this taciturnity. Before playing ‘Mâdhu’, she explained that the opening was an invocation to bees to bring honey for mead. She also dedicated ‘Lord of Ages’ to Moynihan’s friend, Dr. Zeke Mazur, a scholar of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism who had translated the prayers that start the song and who died in August. Speaking with great warmth and enthusiasm, and encompassing both Mazur and Murphy, she wished departed friends well on their journey in the afterlife while introducing ‘The Path’.
They returned for an encore with ‘Lord of Ages’, a proud setting to music of Kipling’s ‘Song to Mithras’, followed by their plaintive cover of the Fire+Ice song ‘Seeker’. Changing the mood 180 degrees, they followed suit with another cover: this time a harsh, mechanical rendition of Joy Division’s ‘Walked in Line’, ending, finally, on ‘Eternal Soul’. They had played it earlier, but perhaps were unhappy with the sound. Certainly, this second performance seemed clearer and more direct, driven along by a pulsing, double-time rhythm. It was a rousing end to the night.
While the themes that Blood Axis tackle in their music are often grim, there’s no denying that there’s a life-affirming spirit behind it all. It was a spirit that I felt honoured to share in.