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Live Reviews : Direct Underground Fest @ Max Watts, Melbourne 06/05/2018

By on May 7, 2018

Images: Dylan Martin
Words: Thomas Szulik

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After a blazing success in 2017, the Direct Underground Fest returned to Melbourne with what is arguably one of the most impressively unwieldy and extreme line-ups curated for some time. Punishing volume, entrancing drum blasts and dark imagery aplenty, it is clear to see why Direct Underground is one of the key dates in the calendar for death/black metal fans down under.

It seemed fitting to host Direct Underground Fest at Max Watt’s instantly as I descended the winding staircase into near darkness. Melbourne’s very own Encircling Sea kicked off the evening perfectly with their unique blend of blackened post-metal to the appreciative ears of the quickly filling venue. Illuminated by the image of the latest album Hearken, what ensued was a thirty-minute barrage that was a pummelling as it was beautiful. Vocalist, Rob Allen, seamlessly lead the outfit, screaming his heart out while wielding a guitar that paled in comparison to his dominating stature. Playing through tracks of their latest effort, Rob and co-created an intensely atmospheric wall of sound with moments of sombre beauty. Finishing with a gigantic display of noise worship, Encircling Sea set the scene for an intense night ahead.

Belgium’s Wiegedood were next to hit the stage and wasted zero time in doing so. Starting and finishing at their precisely scheduled playing times, Wiegedood demonstrated a finely tuned high-end attack of black metal. Fragments of quiet and haunting reflection were immediately interrupted by the relentless pace of Wim Coppers on the drums. Heavily bearded guitarist and vocalist, Levy Seynaevem shrieked his way perfectly through a set comprising of tracks from their De Doden Hebben Het Goed series. Guitarist, Gilles Demolder, complemented the styling of Seynaevem by creating an enveloping guitar sound that drives the group’s unique take on ferocious and uplifting black metal. A seemingly reserved crowd were left in stunned silence and blinded from an unforgiving strobe attack as Wiegedood ended their tour de force as quickly as it started. A personal highlight.

A little bit closer to home, New Zealand’s Diocletian first visit to Australian shores saw a number of rowdy punters chanting endlessly for the doom cult bringers. Donning black hoods with nails and shards of metal hanging around their necks, the unmerciful heaviness of Diocletian is pulverising. Through crushing bass tones, grinding guitars and drums that seem too fast to be capable by a human, Diocletian delivers monolithic riffs across new tracks such as Repel the Attack and get heads shaking across brutal cuts like Antichrist Hammerfist. Having a grinding, noisy and industrial brand of dooming heaviness, Diocletian was a welcome addition to tonight’s brooding lineup.

Having already viewed three quality bands, the night was still far from over. It should be commended for how well oiled a machine Direct Touring were operating. With such a tight schedule to keep, it needs to be acknowledged how impressive it is to see set changes completed so efficiently, with sometimes up to nine people on stage working to get things ready within a relatively short span of time.

Set to take the stage next, Boston’s technical thrashers Revocation brought a welcomed dose of fun into the glooming atmosphere of the night. Ripping out into Communion, the band thrashed their way across tracks from Deathless and 2016’s brilliant effort Great Is Our Sin. Guitarist and vocalist, David Davidson, brought a profound charisma to the frantic crowd, who effortlessly yelled his heart out while simultaneously shredding. Bassist, Brett Bamberger, and drummer, Ash Pearson, held the backbone of tracks such as Madness Opus and Crumbling Imperium as Davidson and Dan Gargiulo danced their fingers across fretboards in an entertaining display of speed, technicality and brutality. A masterclass in metal, Revocation came, they conquered and the audience lapped up every second of the all too short set from these Massachusetts marvels.

It has been said that a Belphegor concert is much more a ritual than it is live music show. This appears evident largely thanks to the giant inverted crosses, burning incense and skull pillars that now strategically dominant the Max Watts stage. A now swelling room was heaving with anticipation for the sermon about to ensue.

Belphegor burst to the stage with a grim attack of their finely crafted blackened death sound. Perhaps the most well-received of the night, the Austrian summoners of darkness began their procession with an onslaught of deafening guitar riffs and drums that pounded your chest into submission. Guitarist, vocalist and spokesman, Helmuth Lehner, whipped the crowd into a frenzy across tracks such as Lucifer Incestus and Baphomet, his voice sounding in fine, gravel-scraping form despite his health complications and near death experience due to typhus from 2011. Drummer, Ravager and bassist, Serpenth simultaneously whip their heads around as they play, leading the hordes of the crowd to follow suit. As the smell of incense wafted through the venue, the audience was rapturous as cuts such as The Devil’s Son brought a deep, brooding darkness to a cold, dark Melbourne night. Helmuth and co rose up at the end of their set, middle-fingers raised as horns were thrown up in the air across the venue, the sign that their ceremony was well received.

In a night filled with a smattering of genres, it could be felt that you would have your monies worth simply for any of the bands to have come previously. Even more remarkable is the addition of Norwegian legend Ihsahn to the bill following the demand after his debut Melbourne performance sold out. It is imperative to acknowledge just how much influence Ihsahn himself has had on the sound, ideology and development of black metal, avant-garde and extreme metal largely due to his material with Emperor. Dare I say that influence was reflected amongst every band playing tonight.

Arriving at a surprisingly subdued reaction, Ihsahn began his set with the synth-tinged cut Lend Me The Eyes Of The Millenia and Arcana Imperii from the recently released Ámr. Ihsahn didn’t rely on any gimmicks or props in order to propel his set, rather relying on his pure showmanship and legacy. Backed by an impressive backing band, crushing attacks on duelling eight-string guitars and grooving bass on tracks such as Frozen Lakes on Mars from the After album or My Heart is of the North from the influential Arktis. Although this reviewer didn’t catch his name, Ihsahn’s current drummer showed off his style perfectly across an hour of grooving, avant-garde, progressive metal, particularly on tracks such as the saxophone-laden encore The Grave from the Eremita release.

Knowing his own legacy, Ihshan charismatically explains that he has a new-found love for Melbourne, but that his heart will ultimately belong to Norway. From this proclamation, Ihsahn decided to explore some of his old material in which he knows the power and the beauty of. Ripping early into his set with his Emperor classic Thus Spake the Nightspirit, Ihsahn’s iconic growl was in powerful and dominating form tonight, as was his wispy, often eerie cleanly sung passages. With many Emperor shirts in tow tonight, cries for songs such as I Am The Black Wizards did not go unheard, with the crowd chanting during Emperor icon Inno a Satana definitely a highlight for the evening. If I had to make a complaint about this set it is that the synths and keys often felt a bit lost in the mix, however when they were prominent they were used remarkably well, and barely deterred from the oddly euphoric experience that Ihsahn delivered.

As I ascended the stairs and into the cold Melbourne night air, it was refreshing to see battle-jackets and long-haired sweaty punters walk down a quiet Swanston Street. The chattering of personal highlights, hopes for future festivals and comparison to experiences overseas were of discussion. It was a moment of contemplation towards a well-curated evening that would not be forgotten for some time. If 2017 was a success for Direct Underground Fest, 2018 topped that and then some. There’s a lot of people already eagerly awaiting the next ritual.