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Blood and Thunder: Anathema Falls and Rises at Roadburn 2015

For a moment, Anathema looked like they would close out the 2015 Roadburn Festival on a completely flat note. Then they pulled off a comeback for the ages.

I have never seen a concert go from utter shit to spectacular like Anathema’s performance at the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, the Netherlands, on Sunday, 12 April.

It was such a strange way to cap off the 20th edition of the renowned music fest, but going in the potential was there for something special to happen. With their recent albums equal parts progressive rock and Coldplay-style stadium rock, Anathema was a bit of a left-field choice as the headliner for Sunday’s “Afterburner” lineup, but considering the band’s roots as a doom metal band in the early-’90s, it was an idea that could work, especially when you took into consideration what the UK band had in store. It was Roadburn’s suggestion that Anathema explore their early output in a special set, and that inspired brothers Vince and Danny Cavanagh to organize a special set that would start with Anathema circa 2015 and gradually work its way back towards the band’s extreme metal beginnings. Better yet, the brothers had reconnected with former vocalist Darren White and former bassist/songwriter Duncan Patterson, and both would be joining the band onstage, with White singing on the last handful of songs from their pre-1996 era.

The addition of Anathema was a real coup for the festival, another example of how Roadburn is steadily expanding its musical breadth beyond the doom and stoner metal that used to be its primary focus to include music that is adventurous, experimental, and progressive in its own unique way. The key difference here, compared to past bold bookings like Loop and Magma, is that Anathema is not a cult curiosity, but a formidable draw on its own. Individual Sunday tickets sold out quickly, and the crowd of more than 2,000 packed into the 013 venue was the most diverse I personally had seen in four years of attending. You had the usual bearded/black-hoodied Roadburners, obvious progressive rock nerds, and interestingly enough, plenty of fashionably dressed couples who were big fans of the band’s post-2005 incarnation. Looking around before the show started, it felt as if Anathema’s addition had increased the number of women at Roadburn by 50 percent, which was remarkable.

Considering the strength of Anathema’s past three albums — 2012’s Weather Systems remains a latter-day masterpiece — and the excitement about the return to the band’s early material, the excitement was justified, not to mention palpable as the lights dimmed and the crowd roared. But what they got at first didn’t feel right at all. It might have been thematically fitting to start the big “Resonance” performance with the autobiographical “Anathema”, but its flitty piano arrangement and Danny Cavanagh’s preening performance fell flat. Most troubling, though, was how muted it all felt. Present-day Anathema, on record at least, achieves a spellbinding mix of emotion and bombast, but the bombast was totally missing from the climax of that first song, and even worse, the otherwise brilliant “Untouchable, Part One”.

One of the best tracks of this decade so far, the album version of “Untouchable” gloriously raises its skinny fists towards heaven, but with the guitars turned down so low — utter heresy considering this festival, which boasts the richest-sounding guitar back line you will ever hear — it felt so tepid, so neutered, so adult contemporary. It was nauseating to hear this band’s music stripped of all punch, not to mention devastating for someone like yours truly, who had admired this band for so long yet had never seen them perform in person. It didn’t help that the trendy couple next to me started making out furiously during the lifeless “A Simple Mistake”. When they guy, whose tongue was well down his woman’s throat, started to rub up against me, that was it. I’d had enough. Fuck this band, fuck this fucking awful mix, fuck that un-rock ‘n’ roll plexiglass cage around the drum kit, and fuck this passive-aggressive attempt at a Euro threesome. I fought my way out of the theatre, walked in a huff out the lobby, onto the quiet Veemarktstraat, and proceeded to vent my frustration on Twitter.

I’m as patient a concertgoer you will ever meet, so for a band I genuinely like to compel me to walk out of their performance speaks volumes about how much they actually sucked, and the suckage of Anathema’s set was impossible to bear. I wouldn’t have returned were it not for good pal and fellow writer Rob McAuslan, who suggested we venture back to see if things had improved. A half hour had gone by.

“Where are they now, you think?”

“Probably 1998.”

“Let’s head back in.”

Indeed, the band, now joined by Patterson, was working its way through the Alternative 4 era, “Empty” and “Lost Control” exploring Anathema’s gothic metal period. It was a modest improvement over the early portion of the set, but things truly started to pick up when all three parts of Patterson’s “Eternity” suite, from the 1996 album of the same name, were played. The guitars started to sound meatier, the overall performance more insistent, the milquetoast feel of the opening half hour a distant memory. The setlist then moved into the band’s classic doom period, and the most incredible thing happened: the riffs were back, the heaviness was back in full, and most importantly, the Roadburn sound was back completely. Right on cue, as soon as the glorious doom riffs of “Sunset of Age” and “A Dying Wish” kicked in, more and more bearded, hoodied skids started drifting into the theater like Pavlovian dogs.

The band’s momentum was building at an intense rate when erstwhile singer Darren White was brought onstage to perform the big finale. Looking trim and healthy, the short-haired White seemed a little nervous and tentative, clutching the microphone stand during “Kingdom”, but the more the set went on the more comfortable he became, and it wasn’t long before he was commanding the stage like neither Cavanagh brother had done. It was now a complete, 180-degree turn from the beginning of the show. The reunited band tore through selections from 1994’s Pentecost III EP and 1993’s Serenades. By the time the band was capping off the two and a half hour set with “Sleepless”, White had stolen the show, and was given an ovation only a returning hero would get. It had to have been an extraordinary moment of redemption for him, and for the rest of us it was a complete pleasure, not to mention a thrill to see Anathema so vividly transformed. What began as a disaster, an embarrassment, had slowly turned into one of the most memorable, rewarding concert experiences I’ve ever witnessed.

Note to the Cavanagh brothers: this is far, far too good a thing to be only temporary. Milk it for all it’s worth.

 

Lists!

It’s amazing how some music writers still consider Roadburn a “doom” and “stoner” festival, and carry on how it’s “dark”, “heavy”, and “mean”. To think that is to completely lose touch with what the festival has become: a rich, diverse, experimental, and above all else positive and welcoming music experience. Doom remains Roadburn’s bedrock, but its stylistic breadth has expanded dazzlingly in recent years. Nowhere else can you experience doom metal, black metal, psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll, goth, space rock, jazz fusion, no-wave, krautrock, electronic, progressive rock, sludge, garage rock, and kosmische music all within meters of each other. The richness of Roadburn is unparalleled, it is the standard-bearer for all music festivals, and once again it delivered on all fronts in 2015. Listicles always seem lazy, but to recap all the good I witnessed, it’d take a few thousand words. So in its stead, here are the ten best bands I saw at Roadburn 2015.

1. SubRosa: The Salt Lake City quintet’s highly anticipated Roadburn debut was transformative. Doom riffs and violin melodies sent the beautiful and sunny Het Patronaat venue skyward.

2. Fields of the Nephilim: The British goth legends exceeded expectations with two intense performances, with Ian McCoy in incredible vocal form and the band sounding heavier than most metal bands that weekend.

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Fields of the Nephilim (photo by William van der Voort)

3. Wovenhand: David Eugene Edwards returned to Roadburn sounding as intense as expected. The set was surprisingly heavy and rocking, with the dustbowl yawp of his gothic Americana echoing that of the Nephilim, only with a more decidedly spiritual bent.

4. Goblin: Seeing Claudio Simonetti and his band perform his classic scores of two seminal horror films, Dawn of the Dead and Suspiria, while the movies played on the gigantic screen above was a thrill beyond words.

5. Focus: Backed by a taut band featuring former Threnody guitarist Menno Goodjes, Thijs van Leer transformed the sweltering Green Room into a prog rock party (imagine that!) with a raucous, joyous set that climaxed, of course, with an epic rendition of “Hocus Pocus”.

6. Zombi: The duo of Steve Moore and Anthony Paterra is back making music together, and better yet, performing. Their searing, loud blend of John Carpenter, Moroder, and motorik had the Main Stage venue rattling.

7. The Heads: Nobody does psychedelic rock quite like the Heads, and their Main Stage set, which I hear could very well be their last for quite a while, was loaded with the catchiest, fuzzed-out jams heard all weekend.

8. Lucifer: A year after the Oath suddenly broke up, singer Johanna Sadonis returned with a new band featuring guitarist Gaz Jennings (Cathedral, Death Penalty), a killer new album, and an outstanding performance of occult-themed doom and heavy rock.

9. Bongripper: Only at Roadburn could Bongripper draw a crowd of well over 2,000 to see a set of instrumental doom. The Chicago band didn’t disappoint, following up their now-legendary 2012 Patronaat set with a Main Stage performance that sounded even bigger.

10. Anathema with Darren White: As explained above, Anathema’s reunion with their old lead singer was something special, a performance for the ages.

Splash image: Anathema performing at the 2015 Roadburn Festival, by Paul Verhagen. Thumbnail image: Fields of the Nephilim at the 2015 Roadburn Festival, by William van der Voort.

Album(s) of the Week

Seeing that I missed two weeks of new releases — apologies, I was cavorting across Western Europe for nine days — instead of doing the usual roundup for this week, I’ve chosen to highlight some of the more noteworthy albums that came out from 7 to 21 April.

Acid King, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere (Svart)

Ten years after their last album, the influential stoner doom trio has returned with a spellbinding record. Loaded with similar hazy, heavy grooves as fellow cult faves Sleep, only with a more mystical air to the music, listeners will hear just how much Acid King’s shadow looms over a band like Kylesa and Across Tundras. The best metal often comes from the subgenres’ progenitors, and this band has returned sounding on point, in full command. (Stream and purchase via Bandcamp.)

Acid Witch, Midnight Movies (Hells Headbangers)

Acid Witch is one band I’ve always felt never fully delivered on their promise. Their harsh vocals fail to deliver the extra melodic punch their classic heavy metal compositions need. However, this is one gregarious, very fun band, and they channel all that positivity into this wonderful four-song EP of ‘80s horror movie covers. You get Sorcery’s “I’m Back” from Rocktober Blood, Black Roses’ “Soldiers of the Night” from Black Roses, and best of all, Fastway’s Trick or Treat nugget “After Midnight” and 45 Grave’s classic “Partytime” from Return of the Living Dead. All tracks are outstanding choices, and sound fantastic — even Shagrat’s gurgly vocals — performed with verve and including audio samples from each flick. For those old enough to remember renting those old VHS tapes, you’re going to love this.

Bosse-De-Nage, All Fours (Profound Lore)

Much has been made of the graphic, vivid, harrowing poetry that comprise the lyrics on the San Francisco band’s latest album — to the point of being presented as a word cloud on the cover — but as exciting as it is to finally have a new metal album that puts an effort into strong lyrics, I’d rather focus on the musical aspect of this extraordinary record. An even balance of black metal and post-hardcore, All Fours moves gracefully between passages sound either like Burzum, Slint, the Refused, or sometimes all three at once. There are moments so bleak, so raw that they accentuate the dark lyrics to an unsettling degree, but there’s a sense of resolution too, shades of light sneaking in, bringing the album to an uplifting — but unlike Deafheaven, not maudlin — climax. (Listen on Spotify.)

Enforcer, From Beyond (Nuclear Blast)

The year 2015 needs its go-to retro album, its own version of what Skull Fist was to 2014. Until Cauldron puts out a new record, the latest by Sweden’s Enforcer will do just fine. If you don’t know these guys, they’re permanently stuck in 1984, with a full grasp of what heavy metal was like back then, devoid of subgenres, exuberant, fun, and never shying away from a great hook. With the nimble riffs of late-era NWOBHM, the speed of Exciter and Helstar, and the brashness of young American metal at the time, the accuracy of this album is uncanny, and a total joy. (Listen on Spotify.)

Halestorm, Into The Wild Life (Atlantic)

The Revolver favorites teamed up with Eric Church producer Jay Joyce on their third album, and while Joyce successfully created a country-hard rock crossover on Church’s The Outsiders, here he strips Halestorm of whatever bite the foursome might’ve had. Lzzy Hale is in fine vocal form as always, but the songwriting is scattershot (“I Am the Fire” skitters between Survivor and ‘80s Rush) and the band is buried underneath a lacquer so thick it all feels synthetic. When you write a song that blatantly rips off Loverboy’s “Lovin’ Every Minute of It”, you’ve got problems. And is she actually singing, “I’m-a get mine”? (Listen on Spotify.)

Magic Kingdom, Savage Requiem (AFM)

What’s so enjoyable about Magic Kingdom’s first album in five years is how well it keeps itself from flying off the deep end. With one foot planted in the classic power metal sounds of Rhapsody and Helloween, the other firmly rooted in classic speed metal, there are plenty of opportunities to send the music spiraling into a mess of frilly bombast — good lord, “Ship of Ghosts” quotes Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for a spell — but guitarist Dushan Petrossi keeps things focused for 63 flamboyant minutes. New singer Christian Palin brings a good blend of flamboyance and robustness to the band, and although the running time is a bit of a stretch, there’s enough variety going on to keep things from stagnating. It’s a lot to take in for the average uninitiated listener, but so is any other form of extreme metal. This is a good example of a genre’s style executed well.

Mammoth Mammoth, Volume IV: Hammered Again (Napalm)

One of the most underrated bands on the Napalm roster, the boozin’, brawlin’ Aussies have come through with another collection of catchy, blue-collar rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Alcohol, bitching about The Man, car metaphors, celebrating the power of rock, masculine braggadocio; you know what you’re going to get from Mammoth Mammoth, and they never disappoint. (Listen on Spotify.)

Metallica, No Life Til Leather (Blackened)

The coolest fetish item on Record Store Day was, ironically, a cassette. Recorded in June 1982, this demo played a huge part in launching Metallica’s career, making the rounds among tape traders and catching the ear of Brian Slagel, who put “Hit the Lights” on Metal Blade’s seminal metal Massacre I compilation. The rest, as they say, is history, and No Life Til Leather has been brilliantly remastered in 2015, kicking off Metallica’s ambitious reissuing of its back catalog. Demos of legendary bands are usually quaint affairs, and you hear a little of that innocence in 19 year-old James Hetfield’s voice, but aside from that, the ferocity of these tracks is a marvel to hear 33 years later. It’s all about the guitar interplay between budding greats Hetfield and Dave Mustaine; Mustaine is all flash while Hetfield already shows signs of becoming the greatest rhythm guitarist metal has ever seen. “The Mechanix” has always paled in comparison to the “Four Horsemen” rewrite on Kill ‘em All a year later, but the rest of this extremely important demo explodes with youthful energy. Metallica would incalculably alter the heavy metal landscape over the next decade, and this is the first, crucial step. This release is essential, but if you missed out on the cassette, fret not: it’ll be released on CD and vinyl this summer.

Royal Thunder, Crooked Doors (Relapse)

The evolution of Atlanta’s Royal Thunder has been a marvel to witness. After starting out categorized by many people — yours truly included — as doom, sludge, or both, they branched out on the ambitious debut album CVI in 2012, on which bassist Mlny Parsonz displayed some astonishing vocal power atop the band’s languid, meandering compositions. The follow-up is just as bold, but only in a different way. The songwriting continues to grow and tighten — Parsonz readily admits the band still has a habit of wandering — but even better is how the band is steadily leaving the more outwardly “metal” influences behind them. No more apparent is that than in the guitar playing of Josh Weaver, which practically ditches all riffs in favor of texture. He accompanies and enhances rather than dominates, creating a lavish backdrop against which for Parsonz to show her stuff. And does she ever shine on this record, from the commanding “Time Machine”, to h teaching ballad “Forgive Me, Karma”, all the way to the extraordinary “The Bear II”, an inspired improvised piano/vocal performance that was magically caught on tape and too good not to release. This has been a funny year so far, with very few moments of greatness and inspiration, but Crooked Doors has been the best metal/hard rock album I’ve heard this year so far. (Listen on Spotify.)

Tribulation, The Children Of The Night (Century Media)

So lacking in compositional skill as present-day music has become, that whenever a new death metal band discovers dynamics that the extreme metal hive mind wets its collective pants. Melody and restraint makes music better — imagine that! As a result, you often see bands with decent ideas but half-baked execution receive lavish praise for work that shows more promise than fulfills promise, a perfect example being Horrendous’s likeable yet scattershot Ecdysis album last year.

So it’s easy to understand why one might approach the new album by Swedish band Tribulation with a little, ‘scuse the rhyme, trepidation. The big difference upon hearing The Children of the Night, though, is just how in command of their craft this foursome is. The death metal aspect is being steadily phased out, as the band is clearly following the lead of the late In Solitude, streamlining its sound to incorporate leaner, simpler arrangements. As a result, this album doesn’t so much mimic Morbid Angel than approach the flamboyant majesty of King Diamond’s classic lineup of LaRoque/Denner/Hansen/Dee, a comparison I never use lightly. The sticking point is bassist/vocalist Johannes Anderson, who sticks to a reverb-drenched death growl, which is rather unfortunate considering what In Solitude’s singing brought to Sister two years ago. Although it’s a mild disappointment the band is unable to take the music over that one final hurdle with strong, cleanly sung vocals, Anderson does accentuate the music well enough, giving it more of a horror-derived edge that, once you hear it enough, does work in its own way. Besides, these compositions are so strong, from “Melancholia” and “Winds”, to the gorgeous instrumental “Själaflykt”, to the second half of the album, which shifts gears from “very good” to “excellent”.

Heavy metal, in all forms, is extreme by nature, but “extreme metal” will never evoke the same level of power and majesty as the classic work of the ’80s, when metal had no subgenres to bicker about. Tribulation is clearly well aware of that. They could care less about “extremity”, and they care more about songwriting, staying true to what they feel heavy metal is all about. By doing that, drawing inspiration from tradition, and learning that less is more, they’ve taken a huge, important step forward. If only more bands would learn to do this. (Listen on Spotify.)

 

Head Above Ground

Halestorm’s Into the Wild Life made a big splash in America this week, debuting at number five, its first-week sales in excess of 56,000 more than doubling that of the band’s previous album three years ago. Good for them, but it’s an absolute shame such a terrible album is the one to break them.

 

Track of the Week

I wrote about it at Decibel yesterday — apologies for the shameless plug — but I’ve been listening to Oxford band Undersmile a lot lately, most notably their new album Anhedonia, and especially the song “Sky Burial”. With two women guitarists/singers singing haunting, gothic harmonies countered by absolutely massive doom riffs, it bears a very strong similarity to SubRosa, but enough of that pastoral English influence permeates the music just enough to give it its own character. It’s an extraordinary track from a revelatory album. (Stream the track via Spotify.)

 

Blabbermouth Headline of the Week

 

Horns Up: Roadburn, a Metallica tape cracking the top 100, the triumphant return of Darren White.

Horns Down: Kirk Hammett’s iPhone, Phil Rudd, anyone who claims to be a metal authority yet neither knows nor respects heavy metal history.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.

Splash image: Anathema performing at the 2015 Roadburn Festival, by Paul Verhagen. Thumbnail image: Fields of the Nephilim at the 2015 Roadburn Festival, by William van der Voort.

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