December 19, 2011

LIVE REVIEWS: RITES OF DARKNESS III



All photos by Van Damned.

By Andrew Wilhelm (Denver) and Van Damned (SATX)

The most amazing thing about last weekend's Rites of Darkness III festival in San Antonio was that it actually happened. The venue opened its doors, people showed up and bands played. "No shit, y'all, bands are supposed to show up and people are supposed to come." You're right, but the prognosis wasn't looking healthy for Rites of Darkness. Shrouded in cancellations and ill communication, many questioned if the fest was still happening -- even as planes were touching down in San Antonio and fest-goers were rechristening the Red Roof Inn, the hotel nearest to the show and home base for all the out-of-towners, as the Black Shirt Inn.

A rare weekend for the Alamo City where the weather matched seasonal expectations, gray clouds covered the sky and temperatures stayed below 50 -- perfect, really, for a weekend of death, doom and darkness. But you can't plan for the weather, even if it's the only thing that cooperated. If you can give fest organizer Danny Serna credit for anything, it's that he has primo taste. When we first heard about the lineup, we thought to ourselves, "Even if half the lineup cancels, this will still be the best fest ever." Well, that happened, and it was.



THURSDAY

Andy was still meditating/shotgunning Olympias somewhere in the Rockies, so Van was the lone Crustcake ambassador at the Rites pre-fest.

With visions of angry message board rants still dancing in our heads, those of us at the pre-fest lined up in the chill, damp air outside Bonds 007 Rock Club on Thursday night. The chatter on Facebook and online forums had reached a fever-pitch in the days leading up to the show -- rumors of more cancellations, threats of physical violence, accusations, excuses, half-assed apologies and questions galore had set everyone on edge and the tension in the block-long line was palpable. Nervous laughter mingled with cigarette smoke; awkward introductions were made, a few old friends reunited. The general consensus was that since we had all come this far, why not make the best of it?

Finally the doors opened, but, true to form, a dim-witted Neanderthal woman taking tickets impeded entry. Once inside, $4 32 oz. cups of crappy American light beer began to smooth over any rough edges. The venue itself was an odd choice -- located in the heart of downtown San Antonio, Bonds is neither very convenient nor aesthetically pleasing. The giant structural support that cleaves the stage is also off-putting, as bands had to gingerly step around it, dividing action and attention.



A rocky start from local black metal punks Sturmgewher and a near no-show from followers Vasaeleth failed to allay the fears of many, but soon enough, the youthful -- if somewhat manic -- Georgian/Texan death dealers arrived. Vocalist O.A. said the band had been stuck in Austin traffic after an afternoon practice with Dallas-based drummer Antinom. Regardless, the foursome launched into a set of gnarly oldschool occult death metal, their sound thick with bad juju Georgia swamp rot but clear-headed and focused. English pagan black metal horde Wodensthrone put on an ecstatic, blood-stirring set heavy on the epic, if short on time. Ian, Walshy, Brassy and the rest of those Sunderland stoners were fixtures at the fest, glad-handing, hoisting pints and guffawing with gleeful abandon. Great band, greater dudes. Meat n' potatoes Seattle death metallers Drawn and Quartered followed.



The lights dimmed further, the now-full room filled with choking fog. San Francisco's Dispirit emerged from the haze, their languid doom shot through with skin-crawling psychedelia and heavy doses of blackened roar. They were a highlight of the show and helmsman John Gossard, grizzled metal vet that he is, dropped hints that their long-awaited full-length album will drop sometime early next year. Nuclear War Now! heavyweights Ares Kingdom closed the show. They have a lock on D-beaten power metal (if that's even a thing), with hulking vocalist/bassist Alex Blume possessing the finest roar of the night and guitarist Chuck Keller putting on a veritable clinic in speed and shred. They and Dispirit would return later in the weekend to whet the appetites of the hungry heshers who were unable to make the prefest.

Drunk, and with ears ringing, the hundred or so headbangers lucky enough to make it out on a Thursday were treated with a taste of the brutality to come and went away with high hopes for a rollicking weekend.

FRIDAY

We may as well get it out of the way: We're not huge fans of Backstage Live. Any bar that tries to be a "rock bar" goes for that "Home-Decor-by-Affliction" look, and Backstage Live was no exception. When you rely on posters from Spencer's Gifts and signed guitars from third-rate neo-cock rock groups to decorate your venue, you can kiss your kvlt cred goodbye. Andy almost considered punching out the framed Morrisey Spin magazine cover (seriously, nobody hates The Smiths as much as Andy does) near the front entrance, but with professional obligations in tow, that sure as hell wasn't happening. Even the name of the place itself reeks of hair-metal bands getting hairplugs to maintain the rock mythos. You're probably thinking, "Who gives a shit about the decorations? Get on with with it, you nonces!" But seriously, this place was lame and the antithesis of a proper site for an underground black and death metal festival. Moreover, there was only one person checking IDs (again), which held up the line enough to make us miss War Master, aka "Houston's Bolt Thrower," and Philly punk-black metallers Infernal Stronghold.



Ritual Necromancy, hailing from Portland, Ore., kicked off Friday night for us. They threw us for a loop at first -- a mouth was moving, but where was the voice? A couple subtle rumblings later, we realized dude's voice is so low, it's blending in with the rest of the music. If you've ever listened to Mortician really loud, there's that same kind of vocal trickery going on. Ritual Necromancy were competent, but in the grand scheme of things, they were a good band performing before a lot of greater bands. Grave Upheaval, one of the Australian hordes that swept through, smoked the crowd out -- literally. Seriously, they accounted for at least a third of the fog machine usage during the course of the fest. (Dispirit would another third and the last spread out among the other bands.) Not even a three-hour Electric Wizard set could conjure up that intensity of smoke. Some of the Grave Upheaval dudes are in Impetuous Ritual, who put on one of the best shows of the fest, but we'll get to that later.

Even if Rites had a bit of a hiccupy start, when it got going, it was freewheel burning all night. Dispirit, added to the bill at the last minute, performed another set for those who couldn't make it to the pre-fest. Their set was shorter than the one last night -- one of the "songs" was merely an excerpt of an unreleased song -- but the sound was stronger. From his years in Weakling, Asunder and The Gault, John Gossard can take whatever influences he has at his disposal and spin something completely entrancing and undeniably brilliant. He has a talent for not only creating truly transcendental music, but also finding personnel to fulfill that vision. Impaled's Sean McGrath was such a replacement, brought on short notice as a fill-in guitarist, but there was no nervousness to be found. You'll be hearing more about this band from us, no question.



The United Kingdom had a vocal contingent at the festival, and the most rabble-rousing of them all was the beer-fueled black thrash attack of Adorior. They were one of the most buzzed-about bands at the fest, and they gave the crowd more than what they wanted. Vocalist Melissa Jaded Lungs contributed to the "ironic cancellation band tee" trend of the fest by rocking a Root shirt, but there was zero bullshit in neither her nor the rest of Adorior's performance. Guitarist Shrapnel's main group is the almighty Deströyer 666, and he's a natural fit for both band. Adorior specialize in a headbanging-friendly iteration of death-thrash that raises the dead. Our living spirits were raised, without a doubt. Adorior were so dedicated to the fest, they were the only band to have merch with the fest's logo on it! You can't fault them for their dedication.



Canada was also representing at Rites, and Weapon were the chief ambassadors. Sometimes the best band names are simple and direct -- Weapon is the maxim of this statement. They are a potent group, combining melodies and black metal passages a la Dissection reborn, made even more potent on stage. Relentless and brutal, they still know how to add the right amount to flourish to heighten interest without removing essence. "From the Devil's Tomb," the title track from their latest effort, was the purest example of Weapon's strengths. Watain wished they could write songs that good. Relapse will finally atone themselves for Red Fang, now that they've got Weapon on board.



Fruitful reunions are out there, but they're few and far between. Dio Sabbath -- excuse me, Heaven and Hell -- were one, but Dio's watching over us now (and he probably wants to have a word with Serna). Finland's Demigod exceeded our expectations for such a reunion. They took most of their set from their unacknowledged classic Slumber of Sullen Eyes, highlights being the compact "Dead Soul" and closing with the expansive title track. While they have some of that Swedish Sunlight Studios sounds, they've also got that Finnish bent that can only be made real by being, you know, Finnish. Demigod also benefited from the venue's admittedly excellent soundsystem, easily being one of the clearest band of the whole fest. While their long hair has been shorn, Demigod were not Samsons made flesh. This band was one of the reasons why we didn't give up our Rites tickets -- this shit is probably a once in a lifetime event, maybe twice if we're lucky.



Closing the night were Washington's decidedly un-Cascadian Inquisition. Hearing any black metal musician's "sound check voice" is unusual, but Dagon's relatively normal-sounding speaking voice was especially jarring -- we're all so used to his signature "Abbath sippin' purple drank" croak. With a bigger stage, Dagon channeled Bob Vigna's riffing poses, strutting from side to side, pointing his guitar like a scepter to the crowd. This, combined with the intoning, ritual-esque nature of his vocals, made the performance feel ceremonial. Dagon also ran his guitars through two amps on either side of the stage, making for one of the heaviest live black metal tones ever. To boot, there weren't any Invisible Oranges commenters crying about "Crush the Jewish Prophet" within eyesight. Inquisition were crushing us too much for us to really care. We feel sorry that Dark Funeral will have to go on after Inquisition on tour soon -- humiliation night after night will be hard to deal with.

SATURDAY

Had all the bands canceled, Andy said he still would have made the flight down to San Antonio. Why? You can't get real barbecue in Colorado. Crustcake, along with the dudes in Weapon and the BrooklynVegan crew, got our fill of brisket, ribs sausage, chicken, sauce, Michael Pollan-disapproved white bread, and baked beans at San Antonio's legendary Augie's Barbed Wire Smokehouse, located just a few minutes from the venue, on the edge of Brackenridge Park. Weapon axe-slinger Rom Surtr said he may never return to Canada, and we don't blame him. You can only get Texas barbecue in Texas.

Texas barbecue, especially the divine offerings found an hour Northeast of San Antonio in Lockhart and Luling, is notorious for making its recipients slothful afterwards, which is referred to commonly as "The Itis." Colloquial idioms aside, the barbecue could not slow us down. We had metal to attend to! Or so we thought -- the fest was nearly an hour late getting started. Punk time, y'all!



For a Texas fest, Rites didn't have very many Texas bands -- not that they had room for any more bands from any part of the world. Houston started off Saturday with two of its contingents: grinders PLF (née Pretty Little Flower) and death metallers Blaspherian. PLF were the odd band out at this fest, especially given that powerviolence OGs Plutocracy dropped. Still, PLF's grind was short on fluff and long on brutality. Blaspherian's no-nonsense brand of death metal meshed better with the fest, though the vocals were a little low in the mix. You old-schoolers might have recognized Blaspherian's main guitarist, Wes Weaver, as host of the metal radio show From the Depths. The South was rising still when Georgia's Grave Ritual came on -- they delivered a short, ugly little set of rotten death metal, birthed in a backwoods trailer park of malt whiskey, cheap meth and VHS porn.



Rites' diversity made it hard to pick a clear winner, but Midnight were among our favorites of the weekend. They pierced through the kvlt-and-serious palette and amped up the thrash. Venom's lost sleaze has re-manifested itself in this trio, and it showed in catchy, dirty tracks like "Violence on Violence" and "Endless Slut." Midnight's performance didn't feature the "Midnight Mistresses" or flaming bass headstocks of some of their previous shows, but their music was enough to possess the crowd. The stagedivers were a spectacle in their own right, especially when some of them got a generous serving of the concrete floor. If you think that's wrong, well, we got news for you -- metal ain't pretty! Speedwolf, you, Municipal Waste and these dudes need to book a stagediving contest show, NOW!



After consuming burgers and boudin balls ov delicious impurity at the soul food joint, Tucker's, across the street -- despite promises of taco trucks, pizza carts and falafel the only food available at the venue were stomach-churning arena nachos and warm water hot dogs -- we caught Florida's Black Witchery, clad in black robes, war paint and Satanic amulets, whipping the front ranks of the crowd into a frenzy. Some of the audience tore up a Bible, intending to bring down Christ but instead testing the patience of the venue's janitors. This over-the-top behavior is part of what makes Rites, well, Rites*. Black Witchery are essentially the black metal equivalent of crunk music: simple, dumb, and a lot of fun. Variation was not their forte, and we hope it stays that way. Adding to the unintentional hilarity was bassist/vocalist Impurath's "COME AT ME, BRO"-esque speech in the middle of the set, aimed at a bunch of Internet-facilitated shit-talkers. Black Witchery closed their set with a cover of Blasphemy's "Ritual," and had they not, they would have broke character.



Chicago's ancient warriors Cianide followed Black Witchery. Like the Flordian madmen, they took a KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid, not those excessive merchandising has-beens) approach to their music. The Celtic Frost vibe is strong in this band, from the emulation of Onkel Tom G. Warrior's guitar tone to being able to not sound like a total drag playing mid-tempo songs. A couple of "UGHs" would have made them come full circle. Vocalist and bassist Mike Perun paid tribute to another metal icon by positioning his mic and standing just like Lemmy. Cianide also put a twist on the "wearing your own band shirt on stage" folly, with guitarist Scott Carroll having a backpatch of his own band on his jacket. Now that's a new one for the Death Metal Gig Bingo!

Greece's Zemial were excellent, regardless of choice. No "will they or won't they" drama had Facebook and Nuclear War Now! forum commenters gripped to their keyboards as Zemial's did, and considering the generous donations from some fans to get them to come, they had to be worth it. Reminiscent of Absu -- and not just because the drummers in both bands also serve as primary vocalists -- Zemial also evoke a mythical flavor in their music. Next to Demigod, they had the best mix, everything came through heavy and clear. More than any other band, they were the most appreciative to be at the festival. Their set length, easily the longest out of any band during the weekend, has been argued about in the days since, both sides have a point. It took a lot to get Zemial over here, and they were a big draw for some folks, so it's understandable them wanting to play an extended set. On the other hand, Antaeus were a big draw, too, and they got the short end of the Zemial stick. Also, saying that you have two more songs, and then playing two more songs after those two songs, is definitely uncool.



While Zemial left Antaeus short on time, the French black metallers made the most of it and made a power grab for standout act of the night. Antaeus' sound is very red -- after all, they have albums named Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan and Blood Libels -- and their violent-sounding show proved just that. Virtually relentless, the band plowed through songs like psychopaths through victims. Vocalist MkM's delivery was unreal, plunging through the very sickness of his soul to release his anger onto the crowd. The whole thing was over the top, as well it should have been. Sadly, no flesh-cutting for Satan occurred in the crowd or on stage. Antaeus' shortened set made us wonder about if Mortuary Drape and Root hadn't canceled. What if all the bands that were going to play had played? The fest would have had to have been a round-the-clock event, and that would have been logistically impossible.



A final note on Saturday: While Rites certainly had its fair share of cancellations, the Chaos in Tejas lineup had only been out a day before they had a band no longer scheduled to play. Said group was El Paso's Nyogthaeblisz, and while no official statement has been released about why the band isn't playing, it's alleged that some bands did not take kindly to their particular breed of un-PC views.

SUNDAY

The day of our (dark) lord was doom-heavy, and many of the bands were not so much performers as mirrors of the crowd. Satan, booze, weed, headbanging, and other assorted maladies had gotten to the audience at this point, and the energy present during the last three days of the fest had nearly bottomed out by Sunday. Having covered SXSW and Fun Fun Fun Fest this year, Crustcake was well aware of the Sunday Slump, but it can't be fought.

Punk time was once again in effect, causing the show to start approximately half an hour late. West Coast death-doom was in the building with sets from Seattle's Anhedonist and Portland's Aldebaran. Anhedonist are the young bucks in the game, delivering a heavy set that showed their promise. Aldebaran carried on the fest's noted presence of drummer vocalists. They had some elements of funeral doom in their sound, but were focused more on pummeling the audience slowly**.

Sunday happened to also be a mini Profound Lore showcase. Recent signees Pallbearer were the first band from the label to take the stage that day, impressing the somewhat diminished crowed with their sorrowful doom metal. They began their set with the Crustcake-favorite "Devoid of Redemption," a summation of what makes the group so damn wicked. Brett Campbell's powerful voice soared in triumph and dove in tender sadness. The riffwork is what you'd expect from a reliable doom band, but their pacing is top-notch. Their performance was powerful enough that the three remaining copies of their 2010 demo were snatched up at 100 times the speed of their music. While their demo is available for streaming, don't you want that draped up dripped out funeral album art on your desk?



Vasaeleth, who were actually supposed to play at Pallbearer's time, but were switched for reasons unknown (like many things leading up to the fest), benefited this time around from not having to set up in the blink of the devil's eye. While this was only their third gig ever, O.A. knows how to draw attention and command an audience. Decked in chains and ripped black pants, he is one of the more charismatic frontmen we've come across. On a down note, it's a shame that we didn't get a sip of Antinom's homebrew. Chris Bruni, Mr. Profound Lore, himself, couldn't stop raving about it.



Mitochondrion, with their twisted, technical-but-not-"technical" death metal, continued Profound Lore's winning streak. While they donned the same warpaint of their countrymen in Blasphemy, their music is much more complex, yet it maintains that level of wild-eyed chaos that Blasphemy unleashed. Mitochondrion started with their 17-minute composition "Pestilentiam Intus Vocamus, Voluntatem Absolvimus," perhaps the closest thing our age has to a death metal epic. Strobe lights disoriented the sense of time and space in their performance -- they seemed to be moving slower than they actually were. Some of the subtleties of their record got muddled in the live setting. On the other hand, the level of visceral intensity with which they play is unattainable anywhere outside a live performance. Truly outstanding stuff.

Britain's Cruciamentum immediately followed. They put out a no-frills set of intimidating death metal, with all the nuts and bolts that make the genre what it is. After another Tucker's break, we caught the latter half of the sole Japanese crew at the festival, Anatomia. They take the same approach as their brothers in Coffins -- low, slow, creeping death. Not terribly original, but they put on a respectful performance. Ares Kingdom put on another clinic for those who missed the pre-fest, and they were just as powerful on their second night. Blume was particularly charismatic, hoping for a heart attack while performing a Slaughter Lord cover. Ares Kingdom were the most uplifting band on the fest aside from Midnight. Order From Chaos, indeed.



For some members of the crowd such as Mr. Andrew Wilhelm, the sting of Danzig's diva-esque meltdown at Fun Fun Fun Fest persists. Impetuous Ritual came on stage drenched in blood, like a reborn and longer-haired Samhain, which healed those wounds. They had the oddest lead-in: the PA, which had spent the weekend rotating between ZZ Top (wouldn't be a Texas gig without it!), King Diamond, or Suffocation's Pierced from Within, was unleashing the shrieks of Diamanda Galas unto the unsuspecting audience. Trust us, listen to her music and forget about a good night's sleep! Impetuous Ritual lived to the festival's name the most, proceeding to open new wounds in the process. The band's core members, guitarist/vocalist Ignis Fatuus and guitarist Omenous Fugue, are also conspirators in sadistic executors Portal. While Horror Illogium and the Curator may be the brains behind the latter, the former proves they can rival Portal at their own game.

And it had all come to this: funeral doom kings Mournful Congregation. It was past 1 a.m. when they started. The club did not have the numbers it did at the same time on Friday. Were the Australians signed to the fate of Dispirit, having to perform an incomplete song so that the meatheads at Backstage Live wouldn't throw them out? Even if they had to judiciously choose their songs, Mournful Congregation made the most of their time. Solemn funeral doom entranced the sparse crowd, especially when it came from a three-guitar attack. Their set ended at 2:05 a.m., not by a cutoff but a gracious goodbye.

Despite all the doubting, Rites of Darkness was an amazing fest in a year of amazing fests. The roster couldn't have been better, we couldn't have hung with and met cooler people, and we couldn't have partied any harder than we did. Serna announced recently that there will be a fourth edition of the fest in 2013. This one may have turned out better than anyone ever thought, but please, Danny, get your shit together next time around. Disma and Loss, y'all should have came down, it was a grand old time. Nevertheless, we'll see you at Chaos in Tejas.

+++

* At last year's Rites of Darkness, Mexico's Morbosidad pulled the same ripped-up Bible stunt, but taking it a step further by lighting it on fire. Tossed into the crowds, the burning pages floated like smoldering snowflakes on the seriously freaked out audience. Another band, Ohio's Manticore, had crucified mice and hung them from their mic stands, a truly cheap and petty manifestation of perceived evilness. A crazed fan grabbed one of the dead mice during a stint on stage and ripped it apart, hurling the guts onto the heads of the first several rows of people. It was a really all a big bummer, actually.

** It should be noted that the Crustcake camera also began to show signs of significant battery loss, as its official keeper forgot to charge it up Saturday night.



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