(Our Nottingham-based writer Andy Synn ventured down to London to catch the Venereal Dawn Tour MMXIV and files this report, with video of the performances.)
From the moment it was announced, there really was no way I was going to miss this show. Two of my absolute favourite bands, Dark Fortress and Secrets of the Moon, along with one of this year’s best discoveries, the ineffable Schammasch, all on the same bill?
The fact that it was down in London, at The Underworld (a venue I’ve always loved) was both a blessing a curse, as it pretty much guaranteed a great sound and atmosphere for the night, but also necessitated leaving work early and making a three-hour (give or take) drive through the irritating London traffic.
Still, totally worth it.
After a short diversion to the merch table in order to divest myself of some funds and acquire a white Schammasch “Contradiction” t-shirt (I already have shirts by both Dark Fortress and Secrets of the Moon, don’t worry), my two compatriots and I found a spot on the venue floor, close to the stage, to await the magical manifestations of the Swiss occultists.
And oh, the wonders to which we bore witness.
The band’s set was, to all intents and purposes, one single, expansive sound-scape, songs overlapping and coalescing into a ritualistic haze of hypnotic riffs and mesmerising lead parts. broken up only by the smallest of interludes, filled with eerie, droning ambience and strange, sibilant whispers.
Clad in matching finery, and beneath a pall of bleak, oppressive lighting, the enigmatic foursome played like they were headlining, conjuring up a dark miasma of choking, atmospheric riffs and compelling, intricate drums that seemed to make time grind to a halt.
Live, the band’s songs have an almost post-rock (or post-metal) feel to them – utilising negative space as much as blackened intensity, gleaming melody as much as groaning riffage – washing over the listener in waves of light and shadow. By the end of their set I could not have told you if they had been playing for ten minutes, or ten hours, yet it still seemed over all too quickly for my liking.
An utterly spellbinding performance, make no mistake.
Secrets of the Moon were up next, and also played like they were headlining the evening. The band’s thunderous live sound (I still contend they have one of the best, most crushing guitar tones in all of Black Metal) was in full effect, at times pulverising the listener with massive, prodigious riffs, at others seducing them with dark, melodic majesty.
With the sad passing of bassist LSK earlier this year, and the recent departure of long-time drummer Thrawn Thelemar, you would have been forgiven for thinking the band might have been on less than perfect form… But you would have been mistaken. New sticksman Erebor was an absolute revelation behind the kit, matching impressive power with impeccable precision, while Naamah Ash on bass seemed like she was made to be a part of the band, her coiling, leviathan bass-lines often taking centre stage amidst the blighted riffs and blasphemous melodies the band have concocted.
A writhing rendition of “Serpent Messiah” began the set, and a searing performance of “Carved in Stigmata Wounds” brought it to a close. In between these two monoliths we were treated to a wealth of material drawn from across the band’s back-catalogue (though with their penchant for writing lengthy, multi-layered compositions, we were never going to get everything we wanted to hear), including a sombre and evocative “Shepherd”, a devilish “Lucifer Speaks”, a ghostly run-through of “Nyx”, and the chilling, nuclear fire of “A Million Suns”.
One thing that always occurs to me when seeing the band live is how easily they meld together their influences into something utterly and undeniably distinctive. Gloomy Celtic Frost-isms and juddering Satyricon-esque grooves are accentuated by an almost Metallica-like bombast, the band peeling off monolithic riff after monolithic riff with unswerving, unshakeable confidence, before suddenly dropping into moments of synchronised, locked-in, heads-down thrash, or pulling back to weave a hauntingly melodic atmosphere of pain and anguish, without missing a step or losing their primal focus.
Doomy, desolate, and devastating, they damn near stole the show.
After all that the bar was obviously set pretty high for headliners Dark Fortress, and thankfully they did not disappoint. The murderous grooves of “Betrayal and Vengeance” kicked things off in style, though I still feel like the title track to their new album (“Venereal Dawn”, which was aired later in the set) would have served as a much stronger, much more compelling opener. Though perhaps I’m just being picky with that.
With a new album to promote (it’s pretty fantastic by the way, very dark and proggy), it’s no surprise that Dark Fortress focussed a lot of their set on new material, with the title track, “Chrysalis”, “I Am The Jigsaw of a Mad God”, and the aforementioned “Betrayal and Vengeance” eating up the lion’s share of the band’s set. What was a surprise, however, was the variety of older material they included alongside these new cuts, including a murderous run-through of “When 1000 Crypts Awake” (off of Stab Wounds) and a frankly ravenous airing of “Poltergeist” (off Séance), while Eidolon was ably represented by an eviscerating rendition of “The Unflesh” and climactic closer “Baphomet”, which left the assembled audience pretty much levelled with its mammoth, misanthropic grooves.
Always on the more… musical… end of the Black Metal scale, it really shouldn’t need to be said that Dark Fortress were unbearably, even inhumanly, tight onstage. Though incredibly talented guitarist (and corpse-painted Christian Bale lookalike) V. Santura tends to get the lion’s share of the attention due to his honestly scintillating fretwork skills, neither long-term bassist Draug nor guitarist Asvargr (the sole original member remaining) should be ignored, as the air-tight melding of these three really allows the band to lock down their signature melding of hammering riffage and seething tremolo melody with truly malicious intent.
But it’s drummer Seraph who, for me, is the band’s real ace in the hole. Probably one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen live, when it comes to blast-work his intensity and stamina are almost unparalleled, but it’s his grasp of more intricate styles and ability to weave them into the band’s blackened arsenal that makes him their true secret weapon, and a truly perverse pleasure to watch.
Over the course of their impressively long, invincibly heavy, and chaotically calculated set, Dark Fortress definitely demonstrated that they have both the talent and the ambition, as well as the uncompromising vision, to further widen the scope of their sound.
As the last notes of the night rang out into squalling feedback, the band left the stage for the last time, leaving behind an utterly enraptured crowd of both old disciples and new converts.