Prague Death Mass vol. II
Words by James Hibbert
Photos used with the kind permission of Ivo Oskar Osvald – check out his full set from the festival here on PhotoMusic.
Prague is a city unlike many others. A remnant of pre-WWII Europe and thus an architectural goldmine of medieval and renaissance splendour, rich in religious symbolism and pertaining to a history of alchemy and spiritual experimentation. From it’s famous Charles Bridge through to the astronomical clock of Old Town Square, the castle and it’s great St. Vitus cathedral, the city, one of ghosts and folklore, proves after considering it’s cheap ale prices and abundance of archaic drinking holes something of a perfect host for a festival such as Prague Death Mass, returning once again in 2013 for it’s second installation.
What instantly strikes the attendee when considering the line-up of such an affair is it’s aesthetic cohesion and consistency, one that lends itself to the sustained generation of atmosphere and ambience. Whilst bands such as Finland’s Obscure Burial and the Nidrosian (Trondheim, NO) One Tail, One Head added an energetic, boisterous flair to proceedings in contrast to scene peers Vemod who’s ethereal, dream-like and spacey alternative contributed a change in artistic direction and tempo; the roster in general presented band after band matching each other head to head with their own varying yet cohesive interpretation of black metal orthodoxy. Indeed, whilst it’s hard to decry or condemn the longstanding value of the multiple sub-genre field festival, it is worth acknowledging that perhaps primary amongst it’s setbacks is it’s inherent pluralism and thus lack of consistency; offering a broad scope that fails to provide the in-depth insight into and engagement with a particular sub-genre niche that is offered by the increasingly numerous “micro-festival”. Presenting a line up of only fourteen bands spread over two days, with seven playing each and the first band of both nights taking to the stage at roughly 6pm, here we have a festival allowing itself plenty of room to pay all the attention to detail necessary; and in this respect we bare witness to what really made the event shine.
With this in mind, the Czech Republic’s very own Cult of Fire offered an overheated audience of leather-clad attendees their induction into the evening’s celebrations and after having spent some time milling around a small, stuffy and difficult to navigate merchandise room; the crowd had slowly began to channel through into a hall area complete with low, arched ceilings and a black drape obscuring the stage, from behind which emanated billowing clouds of dry ice and an overwhelming air of incense. As the curtain drew back, a full assault of sight, sound and smell attacked the senses and indeed this approach was implemented throughout the event; concealing the process of preparing the stage for each act from the prying eyes of the audience. Clad in red and black robes, crowned by the band’s distinctive application of the capirote (conical hats renowned for their usage by flagellates within Spanish orthodoxy) and positioned behind a wall of black candles, skulls and their trademark crossed scythes; the following fifty minutes presented a set defined by it’s well crafted stylistic variety, with the band navigating through long tremolo, atmospheric passages and an alternative in the rhythmic stomping of crowd favourites, Záv?? Sv?tu and Satan Mentor.
Following on from these lofty heights, difficult to match in terms of presentation, came Finland’s Obscure Burial; offering a barbaric rampage of blackened, thrashy old school death metal and proving their worth as an upcoming newcomer with plenty to offer.
In contrast, the evening’s third band, Azazel, offered an infectiously catchy if paralytically drunk take on their two decade history that felt perhaps hindered in it’s success by some sloppy musicianship and a handful of clearly apparent mistakes.
Next, to the stage, came Iceland’s Svartidauði, a band that following on from the success of their 2012 full-length, “Flesh Cathedral”, had proven to be a major point of interest in the mind’s of many and despite a snapped bass string and some sound difficulties that resulted in their wall-of-sound approach to the genre often translating as a wall of incoherence; the band successfully navigated their set, difficult to perform, and drenched the audience in layer upon layer of sonic insanity and delirium, including an insight into some new material.
Following on from this, and with regards to being drenched; only moments into One Tail, One Head’s set, the fifth band of the night, did I have my beer knocked from my hand and all over myself as the audience erupted with the infectious energy, charisma and character of the band’s live incarnation. Performing hard-hitting crowd pleasers such as In the Golden Light and Splendour of the Trident Tyger with an intensity and vigour not often seen carried out so commandingly, an audience left battered and beaten awaited the coming of the night’s headlining act (or co-headlining act, if you will), genre veterans, Hades.
Performing something of a mixed bag of both old and new material the Norwegians, who’s stage persona may have appeared cheesy and perhaps somewhat lacking to some after the aesthetic supremacy of Cult of Fire, Svartidauði and One Tail, One Head, offered a simplistic but enjoyable rendition of most of their back catalogue and despite growing levels of tiredness amongst the audience, classics such as Alone Walkying proven to be almighty sing-a-longs.
Last to the stage, then, after an elongated change over period, came Greek esotericists, Acherontas. Masked in a manner similar to the preceding Svartidauði and traversing a set covering material from releases as chronologically varied as “Theosis” through to their 2013 “Amenti – Ψαλμο? Α?ματος και Αστρικ? Ορ?ματα” the band’s dark, brooding and intense performance proven to be something of a highlight, and rightfully so as their performance served to draw a close to the night. A much needed closure with mind towards the following day.
Once more taking to the stage at roughly 6pm in order to kick things off, then, and presenting a much less awe inspiring yet nonetheless engaging offering than their day one counterparts, Cult of Fire; Kringa, a young band, gushed through a percussively heavy set of catchy black metal that whilst being enjoyable in it’s own right done little to match the splendour of their follow up, Sortilegia. The Canadian two piece, lit only by the light of three candelabrum and concealed from view by the wearing of black cloaks, wove their rites of pestilent black sorcery through from one song to the next via the persistence of presumably intentional noise, successfully channelling total dungeon atmospheres throughout the longevity of their set and including the début of new material within. More minimalistic than all else but grandiose in their audio (and visual) representation of darkness, the band proved to be something of an atmospheric high point and remain to be one highlight amongst many, as testament to the success of their oppressive craft.
Next to the stage would be Finland’s Kadotus and alike their predecessor the band appeared obscured by cloak but here on a stage more heavily lit. Despite being a band with which some, including myself, were to a degree unfamiliar, their set succeeded in drawing the audience into it’s largely mid paced approach to black metal, offering an engaging vocal delivery rich with variety and including a guest appearance from Sturla Viðar of Svartidauiði, for a rendition of Sarcófago’s “I.N.R.I”. An undeniably engaging set but one that by and large would struggle to contend with their stage-time successors, Mgla, a band who’s increasing popularity can largely be credited to their 2012 full-length “With Hearts Towards None”, a piece of music that could easily be interpreted as their most concise, complete and overwhelming work yet. With this in mind, the anonymous, masked band careered through the majority of the album’s content with parts III and VII being true high points before they then touched upon content taken from Further Down the Nest, Md?o?ci and Groza, on a stage more heavily lit and less clouded with fog than most else on the line up; allowing for a greater degree of visibility.
Taking to the stage in succession would be Norway’s Vemod, offering something of an atmospheric antithesis to Sortilegia’s earlier performance. Having rid the stage of it’s skulls and candles and having replaced such with an emphasis on a dominating set of largely blue overhead lights alongside a projector depicting images of galaxies and stars, guitarist Åsli held a large set of keys out over the heads of the audience’s front row to the sound of the band’s ethereal, cosmic ambience before being met by his fellow band-mates and slowly building up into the main bulk of the band’s richly attentive set.
Next, to the stage, was the USA’s Negative Plane, a favourite of many, and whilst the band did not fail to impress with their particularly characteristic brand of black metal, near impossible to pigeon-hole neatly into any kind of categorisation, it often-times felt as though they may have benefited from a second guitarist in this particular setting in order to allow for a greater depth and clarity in translation.
Lastly, Hetroertzen took to the stage, consuming a now exhausted audience with their utmost attention to detail and an emphasis on magic and ritual. With a vocalist presenting himself in a manner exceptionally androgynous and adorning himself with black, white and red robes, alternating throughout the performance in correspondence with the band’s set (clad in white for “The White Priestcraft”, for example) and making tasteful use of a gong at select moments throughout; the band covered a well constructed set that despite being a particular stand out did suffer from a complete lack of stage fog and some wavering clean vocals.
Indeed, complete tiredness had set in on most by this point and here we have one of the event’s only major setbacks, something that could have been prevented by an earlier start rather than a later.
What can be commended, however, regardless of this minor flaw, is the prowess of the festival’s organisers in achieving their goal and having had each band roughly appear on schedule, having minimized queuing, something which is an inevitable issue at any event, and for having resolved issues regarding sound when and where possible. With the inclusion of a coach trip to a small town on the city’s outskirts, Kutná Hora, home to an ossuary which houses the remains of as many as 40,000 people whose bones shape chalice, candelabra, coats of arms, chandelier and countless other items in a deathly décor of 13th century vintage proving an asset to the festival’s integrity regardless of a largely dull, hot and uncomfortable coach trip there and back; Prague Death Mass stands as a prime example of how and why “micro-festivals” such as itself alongside the likes of Nidrosian Black Mass, Wolfthrone, Live Evil and so on prove increasingly popular each year in accordance with the increasingly various manifestations of heavy metal as a genre of music, providing more specialised events for more specific audiences.
Lastly, thank you for reading through this monolithic slab of text if you did indeed do so. It’s bloody long.
Until next year.
The above is a tiny selection, be sure to check out the full set of photos from Oskar here.
The Prague Death Mass website can be found here.