Photographed and Written by Anne K. O’Neill
In Seattle, after Daylight Savings, the sun goes down before 5:00pm every day. The clouds hang low, oftentimes half swallowing the skyscrapers and high-rise apartments downtown as the air becomes dense with moisture even when it isn’t raining. And in the midst of this drear, there are a select few of us who actually enjoy the gloom. In addition to adopting a sort of unofficial Hygge as our mode of existence in our homes, we also like being exposed to the elements and willingly venture out, grateful for the chance to wear our leather jackets and have them serve a purpose greater than being a fashion accessory. As a general rule, however, most people refrain from going out and instead elect to hibernate away from the mist, the rain, and the darkness. Yet, despite that, every once in a while there is an occasion where people more prone to staying in will walk away from their cozy blankets, the ambience of lamp light, and quite feasibly their escapist movie streaming for the sake of experiencing something that feels worth abandoning these comforts. Apparently one such occasion would be to see Monarch!, Bell Witch, Usnea, and Isenordal.
While Monarch! hail from France, this event was primarily a Pacific Northwest showcase, featuring Usnea from Portland, as well as Bell Witch and Isenordal from Seattle. Isenordal opened the show, displaying their blend of doom and black metal that is so notably heard in what some refer to as “Cascadian Black Metal.” Moving beyond the restraints of that label, however, they also incorporate more symphonic elements as the music features both a viola and synth, some of which feels reminiscent of a lot of the more symphonic black metal that was popular towards the end of the nineties. Even still, throughout their songs they don’t allow themselves to remain pigeonholed in any one area; when they do veer off onto a sub-genre trail, they don’t get lost on it and return back to the core of what they’re doing. Furthermore, they have parts of their songs that grow in complexity and magnitude where one mistake would make it all fall apart, but they firmly hold it together, all while a sincere passion and enthusiasm for what they’re doing is present in their performance.
Next on the setlist was Usnea. They play what is essentially death-doom, but you can slightly detect that a few of them have some sludge and crust records in their collections. The reason for this is particularly in the fact that, beyond some of the rather subtle political undertones in some of their songs, the presence of these genres are found in their chord progressions and also with their vocals. Their bassist emits the sort of low, guttural death metal growl you would expect, while one of the guitarists has a voice higher in pitch which sounds much more like a scream of disdain or perhaps an expression of terror at the state of our world being bled dry in the name of profit. But that influence is indeed subdued, and the funeral doom elements are much stronger and, as ironic as it may sound contextually, they shine brightly. Regardless of the content, the force of their sincerity is viscerally felt without a second thought while they effortlessly play their instruments in a way that shows they’ve all been knee-deep in music for a while.
Following Usnea’s powerful performance came Monarch! This is the first time they’ve toured the United States in seven years, and I can only assume this, paired with the release of Never Forever, was the primary reason for the completely packed house that was the Highline on this night. Granted, the Highline is the best mid-sized venue in Seattle hosting metal bands, but it was exceptionally crowded and full of enthusiastic faces. Of course, having journeyed here from France, the band were also borrowing a lot of gear and, as a result of this also being the first of their West Coast shows, there were a few technical difficulties that happened initially. However, the grace with which they dealt with these issues was impressive. Not a single bad attitude was to be seen; they maintained good humor and carried on with their chins up. Upon first glance, this is a band featuring people with differing musical interests: The collection of band shirts seen among them ranged from Angel Witch to Disclose, while their vocalist wore all black clothing absent of logos. While I would never put a lot of stock in a band’s image, it is relevant in this case considering the various influences heard in their compositions. It is so incredibly refreshing when people visibly have assorted backgrounds in underground music and then join together creatively to produce something that audibly reflects that diversity.
Beyond this, they display the sort of intensity I always expect with bands from France. Theirs is a country that has had a massive influence on the arts, literature, music, and beyond that, academia, critical thinking, and philosophy. With such a rich history involving these subjects, I get the impression—or admittedly perhaps an overly romanticized Francophile idealization—that people from France were primarily raised in a place that embraces and encourages the arts. Therefore, it’s simply second nature to be intense with art and the presentation thereof. Whether that’s real or not, though I have yet to be proven otherwise by the country’s bands, Monarch! undoubtedly exhibit this sort of fervor and give a performance that transcends the power of their records. Emilie Bresson has many levels of expression and uses her voice as an instrument, running it through a mixing board that she adjusts accordingly to match the mood of what she emits. She is not afraid of her voice and harnesses it in a way that I personally enjoy more in a live context because, paired with her presence, it takes on a new meaning. Moments of softer singing with her head lowered are interspersed with austere, monotone words that are enhanced with reverb and delay. Her eyes fixed coldly upon some poor soul who probably should have turned to stone as a result. The intensity of her voice is then further felt with overt screaming, fists held tightly around the microphone with her body heaving back, propelling the sound from her diaphragm even further, then hunching over, her body contorted as she wraps her arm around her torso, expressing a genuine sense of grief. Furthermore, she was backed by uninhibited musicians who effortlessly play their instruments with force, which is no easy task when playing sludge doom that is this crushing and often punishingly slow. In a way, it reminds me of bands such as Corrupted. Regardless of the challenges they faced, Monarch! pulled through and delivered a captivating set that I’m sure made most everyone feel satisfied with their choice to expose themselves to the soggy, blackened Seattle night in order to be present.
The set to crown all of this would then be Seattle’s Bell Witch. I have seen this band more times than I can count since their inception, and it has been fascinating to witness their evolution. This duo consists of members that have been active musicians for many years, and at this point, their music and performances are a testament to what happens when experience and talent collide. Their set consisted of the first half of their latest release, Mirror Reaper—a one-song album timing out at eighty-three minutes, available as of October 20th on Profound Lore. To any stranger to their music, if you like funeral doom, you will like this band. It is dynamic, well-orchestrated, and saturated with deliberate conceptualizing that particularly makes their most recent work feel more like a carefully crafted piece of sonic literature than it does a “concept album.” I only have one negative critique, and it’s one that wasn’t even anyone’s fault. Due to the backline, there wasn’t any room remaining for a projector screen, so the film that was made by Taylor Bednarz specifically for Bell Witch’s performance of the entire album to be performed at Roadburn next year was projected against the wall of amps. That said, in the absence of a blank white background, it was difficult to discern what was happening. There is also the chance that this was intentional. The subtle glimpses served as more of a teaser than anything. Either way, one day I hope to be able to see the film more clearly because what I could see of it looked like a stunning accoutrement for their music. I’m absolutely positive that those going to see them perform the whole of Mirror Reaper along with the full projection are in for a serious treat. Regardless of this one detail, their set was flawless and spellbinding, and it was my favorite performance of theirs yet. I have no doubt they will continue to evolve.