A Journal Of The Dark Arts
“Fuck it, let’s party – it’s Saturday Night! Oh, who am I kidding; every night is Saturday night. We’re gonna need beer, whiskey, weed, coke… let’s do this!”
Tim Corken – lead singer and guitarist for Austin, Tx’s The Blood Royale – has a crazed, wild-eyed look as he speaks, a giant of a man, lumbering over his backing troops like Klaus Kinski fronting Motorhead. Corken is both stand-up comedian and frenzied warlord, fronting the furiously crunching, pummeling dbeat quartet. Musically, The Blood Royale embody the divide; on one hand, The Blood Royale furiously fun punk-infused rock and roll, perfect for fucking, getting fucked up, and fighting. On the other, they’re a militantly tight armada of pissed-off anarchists, turning on a nickel from doomy downtempo sludge to full-blown Hardcore insanity, often in the same song.
The Blood Royale played second-to-last on the final night of the Northwest Hest Fest – a 3 day metal festival that took place at Dante’s on Burnside in Portland, Or., from September 22 – 24. Now in its second year, festival organizer and head of American Icon Records, and its live music offshoot American Icon Presents, brings together some metal bands of all flavor and shade from all over the world, with some of the biggest names in extreme music rubbing Les Pauls with lesser-known regional bands. The Pacific Northwest was well represented, as was Portland’s sister city of Austin, TX. where American Icon is based out of.
Portland, Or. is not known for its metal scene – although it should be. A number of hugely influential heavy musicians operate out of our misty city, from the atmospheric black metal of Agalloch, to the stoned-but-sarcastic doom of Thrones to the immortal Fred & Toody Cole of Dead Moon and now Pierced Arrows. There’s always been a metal scene here, but it seemed like it was lying dormant, like some latent curse waiting to wake up and stalk the land.
When i first moved to Portland, the scene was steeped in some kind of dream-of-a-dream-of-the-90s, as young college kids tried their best to emulate the freakniks and mutant-like indie underground that Portland used to be known for. Feathers and fur were de rigeur, as young cute girls cooed over their ukuleles in cable knit sweaters. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with indie music or culture (well, minus the occasional unfortunate cultural appropriation), but i was always longing for something darker, heavier, and harder. The noise scene was disspirited and in hiding, and metal shows happened, but scarcely.
Over the past 5 years, things have changed drastically – doing pretty much a full 180. There’s world-class metal shows nearly every night, now, as well as a vibrant electronic music and goth scene. The dark is rising in Portland, that’s for sure, but not all that is heavy is full of darkness. There’s flavors of metal for every personality type, and they pretty much repped for them all, over the course of Northwest Hesh Fest’s 3 days.
Portland’s Diesto were dominating Dante’s infernal stage with their mathy prog metal when I arrived at the final night of Hesh Fest. Diesto are a good representation of a certain side of Portland’s musical psyche – heavy, sludgy, stoner-ish grooves, spiced up with a technical mathy precision. It’s math rock for bong rippers, being both terrifying and a downtuned good time, in equal measures. It’s drinking music for summoning the kraken. The band’s been described, on their most recent LP For Water Or Blood, as “ carving out its own territory in the Pacific Northwest’s long tradition of melancholic doom: long, devious deepwoods soundtracks of thunderously heavy dirges, cyclic riffs, escalating dual guitar lines, dramatic shifts, noisy bursts, and evocative laments.”
Diesto were a headbanging good time, with their monolithic riffs in funky time signatures keeping things interesting, showcasing a tight metal band in full control of their powers. Diesto’s dual-guitar riffage might be a good soundtrack for tall boys and slasher flicks, but the band themselves played it straight, showcasing an earnestness that i found endearing. While i have nothing against campy goodtimes metal, i personally like my metal musicians to come off like some infernal warlord, brutal undead warriors attacking the light. Diesto did not disappoint with their layered, aggressive attack. It was my first time hearing the band, and i was an immediate acolyte. Here’s to hoping they come out with a new LP, soonish.
Austin’s The Blood Royale were up next, before Saturday’s biggest name, Deafheaven, would lay waste to the 6-foot stage. The Blood Royale played an extremely aggressive mixture of thrashy hardcore crust punk, interspersing furious outbursts of blast beats and searing twin-guitar attacks with low slung, punishing sludge. If Discharge were to get together with Eyehategod to make a concept album based around Bob Clark’s Vietnam zombie flick Dead Of Night, it might sound like The Blood Royale. Between songs, singer Tim Corken proved himself to be a highly charismatic frontperson, like Iggy Pop mixed with Jonny Rotten and a touch of Lenny Bruce. It kept things light and fun, until the next onslaught of politically-charged musical terrorism. Lead guitarist JT Smith proved to be another ace up The Blood Royale’s sleeve, laying down furiously soulful acid fried Flying V solos over the relentless rhythmic attack – like Jimi Hendrix jamming with Voivoid. Smith’s guitar tone was truly, truly sick, coaxing out thick harmonic solos, like a river of volcanic blood, before cranking right back into the stripped down hardcore.
Let it be stated, for the record, that i’m not the hugest fan of dbeat/crust, so the deck was stacked against The Blood Royale, but they managed to beat the odds and steal my soul. The Blood Royale have been on tour with Goatwhore for the past couple of weeks, so they were tighter than a barbed wire fence, and three times as dangerous.
Last but not least, the main event – Brooklyn’s Deafheaven. Deafheaven, as you no doubt know by now, are the most well-known proponent of the style known as Blackgaze. Blackgaze is a mixture of shoegaze and black metal, with a hint of post-rock thrown in, mainly in the elongated symphonic structures and glistening guitar tones. Deafheaven played a compelling mixture of material from both their albums – New Bermuda and their hit debut LP Sunbather. Despite having listened to their albums hundreds of time, Deafheaven were a revelation live. Daniel Tracy’s furious drumming was the first and most immediately noticeable element, underscoring the dreamy reverie with fiery whirlwind fills and hammering blastbeats. Tracy never let up, throughout the band’s impressive 1.5 hour set, as they tore through favorites like New Bermuda’s “Luna”, “Baby Blue”, and “Come Back”, encoreing with Sunbather album opener “Dream House”. “Dream House” was truly a dream come true, showcasing the band’s power and fury live. The tempo was cranked to a breakneck fury, tom-toms tumbling like hydrogen bombs as singer George Clarke rasped the tale of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, like some Black Metal Pony Boy.
Apart from Tracy’s drumming, Clarke is Deafheaven’s other ace in the hole. George Clarke is a behemoth of a frontperson – twitching and writhing like a victim of the electric chair as the backing band tears through the unrelenting riffs and coruscating blastbeats.
Metalhead cognoscenti love to hate on Deafheaven, as the most recent poster children of Hipster Metal, but it’s not a fair critique. A band can’t help who their audience is, and there’s nothing wrong with wrapping a heavy ass record in a soft pink, sharply-designed album cover, as with Sunbather. In many ways, Deafheaven are a post-emo/screamo/post-metal hybrid, equal parts Pelican, Thrice, At The Drive In, and Isis. The metallic textures are then layered with beautiful dreamy shoegaze guitars and post-rock harmonics, with waves of droning noise filling out the stereo field, keeping silence and vacuity at bay. While many disparage this combination, Deafheaven actually take the BEST of all genres, instead of inheriting the worst traits. The post-rock benefits from Clarke’s black metal rasp, as the instrumental nature of the post-GY!BE scene can sound kind of generic and interchangeable. Likewise, the post-rock and black metal give a much more ferocious edge to the emo/screamo flavors, sounding like some infernal legions marching on suburbia. The shoegaze benefits from the heavy-ass drumming, crushing like a wall of lead falling from the sky, destroying all life and blocking out the light.
Although every person has their own associations and it’s impossible to speak for everyone, i’ve always felt that shoegaze was the sound of watching life from a distance, as an observer through the screen, as was so beautifully illustrated with the way My Bloody Valentine was used on the Lost In Translation to evoke a sense of separation and loneliness, but also romance and beauty. This distance, in my opinion, is the suburban curse, for those of us who come upon things secondhand instead of in the immediate primordial first stages of creation. The difference, to illustrate the point, is like My Bloody Valentine versus L.A.’s Medicine, or Mayhem versus Brooklyn’s Liturgy. While the first stage comes from circumstance, making do with rudimentary gear or skills and coping with the lives around them, the second stage involves careful study and scrutiny. This music has a tendency to sound somewhat reserved, careful, and restrained, compared to the organic expulsion of the initial creation.
Likewise, post-rock always seems to evoke cinematic landscapes and ambient textures – the sound of a geography, minus human intervention. And black metal, finally, is the spirit of the land, the elementals that lived there before our intereference. Black metal is the revenge of the trees, the stones; the seas and vast forests.
Taken in whole, Deafheaven are the sound of clawing, rending, and tearing one’s way through the veil, breaking down critical distance to become immersed in these mythological landscapes. Deafheaven come from the concrete expanses of Brooklyn, but they carry the wilderness in their heart. It’s proof positive that the ancient ways beats in our blood, no matter where we live. It’s also a good sign that young activists, furiously fighting to forge the future, are finally saying “Fuck it,” and just doing their thing. Because, no matter what road you take, all roads lead to the top of the Holy Mountain. We’ll reach the summit soon enough, and fall down together, laughing and crying.
Northwest Hest Fest is truly an essential addition to the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant metal scene. It truly creates an appreciation for the music we have here, and draws important connections to the wider world at large. We’re not all stoned out hippies, here, or we’re the kind of hippies that monkeywrench bulldozers and black block the bank district. Here’s to a New Era of dark, heavy, psychedelic, mystical metal!