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Altar of Plagues + ZOM

(31 Dec 1969: The Pint — Dublin, Ireland)

The Pint: as a Furnace.

Supposedly, the 22nd of June 2012, should be a summer’s day in Dublin. Instead, the weather is reminiscent of the depths of winter. Constant downpours and a dreary, hopeless sky look down upon the city’s peasants, who race around the city trying to find shelter. Over the past decade or so, the seasons have coalesced into one—perhaps a sign of the beginning of the end? If so, Altar of Plagues provides the warning soundtrack to the end-times and all manic declarations of impending doom.  In stark contrast to Altar of Plagues prophetic battery, tonight Dublin’s largest music venue, The Croke Park, hosts pop morons Westlife, who celebrate the end of their talentless yet frighteningly successful careers. Playing to a mix of approximately 23,000 pre-pubescent teenagers and menopausal house-wives, this group of multi-millionaires (and one registered bankrupt) churn out uninspired covers of already popular songs, as well as songs that they paid people (who have some semblance of talent) to write for them.


Cut back to the meagre confines of the Pint. Onstage, three flickering candles sit on lengthy stands in front of a modest drum kit, awaiting the arrival of gutter-punks ZOM. Underground music fans have begun whispering their Fenriz approved name in darkened corners and copying their sold out, cassette only demo (pressed by the magisterial Invictus Productions), spreading their putrid disease. A morbid mutation of proto-death metal and rabid blackened-punk energy, tonight ZOM’s apocalyptic raids go down a storm with the growing crowd, who stare straight into the abyss this trio create.


Cork band Brains are up next and have been constantly touring the circuit with no real growth, reason being: Brains have no identity. Mixing keyboard driven alternative rock, doom, murder ballads, stoner rock, and snippets of traditional Irish ‘rebel’ music, sometimes in one song, ultimately creates a confused set. There are moments of Clutch-style, doom-boogie that hit the mark, but until this band settles on a sound and stick to it, Brains will always sound like the musical equivalent of a random rock bar jukebox.


To Brains’s credit they do put some light back into the room. However, Wreck of the Hesperus suck the life and energy out of the place with their opaque funeral doom that unfolds at an enervating pace. Celebrating the re-issue of their demos on compilation cassette, Wreck of the Hesperus surprisingly forego playing any material from last year’s full length Light Rotting Out—an album title that perfectly sums up the effect of their scabrous sound. Nevertheless, a disengaged and uninteresting stage performance takes away from the suffocating mood they create, thus confirming Wreck of the Hesperus works best on record, listened to in abject darkness.


Altar of Plagues do not suffer from such problems and are equally engaging on record as in a live environment. Their absence from the capital for a period of two years has the anticipation levels quite high tonight; indicative by the compacted crowd who have pushed closer to the front of the stage. On record Altar of Plagues exist as a three piece, live—guitarist/vocalist James O’Ceallaigh, bassist/vocalist Dave Condon and drummer Johnny King are joined by guitarist Mick Flynn to assist them in fully realising their transcendent soundscapes, which have led to their description as the Irish equivalent of a certain band who assemble at the throne of wolves. Mortality and the degradation of society/environment are weighty lyrical themes that require a substantive musical base in order to deliver the desired impact and Altar of Plagues, over two full-lengths and three EPs, have managed to develop their sound to match the exploration of such subject matter.


Feedback swells and the incremental guitars of “Neptune is Dead”, from the album Mammal, surrounds the room. A hi-hat rhythm provides a warning, as blast-beats and harsh screams cut through the Drudkh-like droning tremolo attack of the guitars before the first of many post-rock grooves take over. The band seems lost within each interchange, swaying through the transitions and making an 18-minute song pass by without any sense of drag, holding the attention of all. Their first full-length, White Tomb, is represented tonight by the elemental “Earth: I—as a Womb” and “Earth: II—as a Furnace”, which reign down upon the crowd in album sequence. The movements between black metal and post-rock are slightly jarring on the White Tomb tracks. Nonetheless, the vocals are more vicious than on record, especially when the tide resides on the melodic opening of “Earth: II—as a Furnace”, revealing Condon’s acrid statement of “a once sacred room / more akin to a furnace”, as the instrumentation ramps up the heat in The Pint.


The waves of post-rock produce a meditative effect on the crowd tonight, who respond emphatically to each hypnotic crescendo. However, the loudest response comes from the surprise airing of “The Titan Skies” off the Sol EP. Considerably shorter and relying solely upon the black metal aspect of the band’s sound, this track proves that Altar of Plagues can rub shoulders with the blackest of the black without delving into the corpse-painted pageantry of their peers. The vocal interplay between Condon’s blackened rasp and O’Ceallaigh’s hardcore shout demonstrates the meeting of two worlds. Meanwhile, the subtle eerie melodies of the Negură Bunget-esque guitar lead that plays over the grinding riffs and blasts makes “The Titan Skies” a palpable highlight.


Altar of Plagues close with the colossal journey that is “Feather and Bone” (the second track of the night off Mammal), unexpectedly descending into an entirely improvised layer of tribal dual drumming between O’Ceallaigh and King that repeats its primal groove over screaming feedback, ending the night on a devastating high. The injustice that a band like Altar of Plagues, who write their own music and perform with passion and sincerity, and who can only summon a select crowd of like-minded individuals, is not lost on a night where 23,000 people celebrate the mediocrity of the mainstream. The underground will always provide the intellectual alternative and important bands such as Altar of Plagues will continue to spearhead the charge here in Ireland.


Alter of Plagues


Wreck of the Hesperus


ZOM


Setlist


1. Neptune is Dead
2. Earth: I—as a Womb
3. Earth: II—as a Furnace
4. The Titan Skies
5. Feather and Bone

Rating:

Dean Brown has an obsessive love of music in every shape and form, with a deep respect for bands that play from the heart. He is a Contributing Editor here at Popmatters, writer for Last Rites (www.lastrit.es), About.com/heavymetal (heavymetal.about.com/), and his work can also be found at soundshock.com, scratchtheSurface-webzine.com, metalireland.com, tighttothenail.com, amongst others. He is also a columnist for the quarterly digital zine Backlit (www.backlitzine.com). Dean can be found on twitter: @reus85


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