Here I am on a gorgeous Saturday morning in Olympia, Washington, still pinching myself to make sure what I’ve been experiencing isn’t some kind of fantasy (or more likely, incipient dementia). Yesterday was the first day of Migration Fest, and the night before that was the unofficial start of the party with a three-band pre-fest show. In a nutshell, it’s been an absolute blast so far. More words (and amateurish photos) to follow.
This is, of course, the first edition of what by all rights should become a never-ending tradition, a labor of love jointly organized by Adam at Gilead Media and Dave at 20 Buck Spin, with support from a whole bunch of their tireless friends and family members. They assembled a stellar line-up of bands, and based on what I’ve seen so far (at least from a fan perspective), they’ve been executing on the plan like a well-oiled machine.
Olympia is Washington’s state capitol, a small town with both fresh-water and Puget Sound shorelines, and for the last two days a place blessed by abundant sunshine and temperatures that have been just about perfect.
Less perfect was my drive down here from Seattle on Thursday afternoon with three friends. What I remember from past visits as an hour-and-a-half drive took about twice that long when the traffic slowed to a snail’s pace about 5 miles outside of Tacoma and didn’t improve much from there into Olympia. This wasn’t during rush hour, and so I kept waiting for a lane closure, an accident, or a meteor crater to explain the crawl, but nope. Is this the new normal in our burgeoning Olympia-Tacoma-Seattle “metroplex”?
This is of course a First World problem, to say the least. I’m lucky as hell to live within even a three-hour drive from a festival like this one. By the time we checked into our hotel and grabbed an early dinner, that headache was forgotten.
The Thursday night free pre-fest show was at a bar called Obsidian, which is also the location of the free after-fest shows (the one last night and the one tonight). The space contains two rooms — a large bar and dining area that you enter from the street, and then a second room through a swinging door with an Exit sign over it at the back of the bar, which is the music venue.
I’m not great at estimating capacities, but I’d guess there’s standing room for 200 in the music space, and it filled up quickly, but wasn’t uncomfortably crowded — though I did wonder what would happen at the after-fest shows last night and tonight after everyone attending Migration (all 800-900 people) got to town.
The pre-fest show began with the Olympia hometown band Ēōs. I wasn’t familiar with their music beforehand, but I’m now a fan. They smothered the audience with glacially paced funeral doom so steeped in misery and saturated in grief that if I had squeezed my arm at the end, I think tears might have oozed from the pores of my skin. Massively heavy, strikingly bleak, and at times mesmerizing, with spectral keyboard melodies rippling above the groaning weight below.
Watching Ēōs, it occurred to me again that when bands play at such a ponderous and crawling pace, the drummers have the time to really wind up and beat the living shit out of their kits. That happened again when Cavernlight played their follow-on set, this time with Gilead Media’s Adam Bartlett hammering the drums in a way that sounded like bombs going off (while also roaring as one of the band’s two main vocalists).
Cavernlight’s style of doom/sludge/drone isn’t quite as consistently slow as funeral doom, but it has the capacity to be brutally crushing, cold, and unsettling — and also chillingly beautiful, with threads of mystical melody casting a spell when they surface.
The highlight of the set was marked by the appearance of a guest female vocalist, Sarah Green. At the beginning of the song (which I think is a new one from the band’s forthcoming album), she sang with only a solo guitar accompaniment, and it was a wonderfully haunting experience. But the hairs on the back of my neck really stood up when the rest of the band joined in, dramatically dialing up the power and intensity, with her voice rising up in range and emotional power.
The last set of the pre-fest consisted of Minnesota’s False performing covers of songs by Emperor. I’ll come back and add the setlist when I’m sure of it, but I’m pretty sure the closing song was “Lord of the Storms” from Emperor’s 1992 Wrath of the Tyranny demo, which I think qualifies as a deep cut. False rocked it the fuck out on that track.
Update: The complete setlist was “Into the Infinity of Thoughts”, “I Am the Black Wizards”, “Ye Entrancemperium”, and the aforementioned “Lord of the Storms”.
False’s whole set was great, but based on my past experience with their live shows, that came as no surprise at all. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching Rachel pacing the stage and putting a hell of a lot of passion into her wrenching shrieks, and her bandmates are really, really good musicians, too. Plus, there was a mystery guest vocalist in a hood, providing growls (and I think clean vocals as well). And with material from Emperor to work with, how could this have been anything but a hell of a good time?
Apart from the pre-show and after-shows, the main Migration Fest event takes place at the Capitol Theater. Now operated mainly as a movie theater by the Olympia Film Society, it was originally built in 1924 and remains one of Olympia’s historic landmarks. It has a large stage and theater seating, both on the main floor and in a balcony area. There’s an open floor space between the first row of theater seats and the stage. And there’s air-conditioning.
Again, I’m lousy at estimating the size of crowds, but I would guess the floor was large enough to hold around 150-200 people, and it was pretty well-packed throughout the first day. I spent part or all of most of the sets in the floor area, but it was nice to have places to sit down, and there were always enough open seats around the theater where you could get a good vantage point at any time.
The festival kicked off right on time at 5:00 with Pale Chalice from the Bay Area of California. They made the artistic decision to play in the dark, which is why the photo above is the best one I could manage. I guess in a way it’s fitting that Migration began in the dark, because there is so much dark music in the festival line-up.
I thought Pale Chalice were very good — the kind of grim, dissonant, frequently savage black metal that chills the air, and yet with riffs and doomed melodies that have a way of sticking in your head.
The lights came on for the collaborative set by Portland’s The Body and Krieg’s Neill Jameson, but if anything, things got even darker. It was like spending a half-hour on suicide watch within the confines of Bedlam. If you’ve heard the collaborative album by the two groups released last year by At A Loss Recordings, you’ll know what I’m talking about — but witnessing this live performance was a whole ‘nother level of intensity.
With The Body generating hailstorms of abrasive noise, occasional industrialized rhythms, scarring riffs, and fleeting wisps of narcotic melody, Neill Jameson seemed to pour everything he had into the vocals, both physically and emotionally — teetering on the brink between abject agony and feral fury, finally on his knees near the end yelling for his life to be ended. A thoroughly harrowing and frightening experience that I won’t soon forget.
Denver’s Khemmis were next, still riding the wave of their breakout 2015 album Absolution, but now with a new album named Hunted that’s scheduled for release by 20 Buck Spin on October 21.
I’ve raved about these guys repeatedly at our site, and over the course of the three times I’ve seen them perform, starting with an eye-opening show at the Denver Black Sky festival two years ago, they’ve just gotten better and better and better (and they were very fucking good to begin with).
For me, the two highlights of their set were the closing song (“The Bereaved”), which happens to be my favorite track on Absolution, and the title track to their new album — which is a tremendously powerful union of thoroughly skull-splitting hammering and immediately memorable melodies.
At this point I went outside the theater and got caught up in a thoroughly enjoyable conversation with Neill Jameson and Steven Williams of Minneapolis-based Init Records, both of whom I was meeting for the first time. And after that, I went off to get some dinner with friends — which meant that I missed Kowloon Walled City.
But we got back in time to see almost all of Obsequiae’s set, which I loved. Fans of Obsequiae’s music, and in particular their phenomenal 2015 album Aria of Vernal Tombs, may not realize that if you just listen to the medieval black metal tracks without the harp interludes, there’s a serious risk of severe neck sprain. And that’s what their show was like. It was pretty much the first non-stop headbang orgy of the festival.
Of course, we were also treated to Obsequiae’s wonderfully archaic melodies (the guitars of Tanner Anderson and Carl Skildum sounded like bagpipes coated with a warm fuzz of distortion), as well as the joyful spectacle of watching vocalist Brandon Almendinger rocking back and forth to the music in between shrieking the lyrics. Fantastic set.
I’m still in a state of disbelief over the final set of Day One — a performance by Krallice that was simply jaw-dropping in the exuberant technical skill of all the members: Colin Marston, Mick Barr, Nick McMaster, and Lev Weinstein (who turned in one of the most riveting and eye-popping drum performance I’ve ever witnessed).
I’m still trying to figure out how music that’s this vicious and explosive and mind-bendingly intricate still holds together as songs, but it does. In a live setting, you can get so caught up in the energy of the pyrotechnic displays that sometimes it’s only after the song has ended that your mind grasps its structure and remembers the threads of melody that were there all along. A phenomenal set.
My friends and I went straight from the Capitol Theater to Obsidian for the after-show and got there not long after 10:00. With NY’s Anicon (and presumably a second chance to see Lev Weinstein in action) plus Seattle’s Bell Witch scheduled to perform, we were all determined to get there in plenty of time, given the uncertainties about how potentially 800-900 people would be shoe-horned into a space for about 200.
I moved through the bar/restaurant area and posted up close to that swinging door at the back leading into the music space. The door remained closed for sound checks, and by 11:00 (which was the scheduled start time for the after-show) it still hadn’t opened. By that point, the bar/restaurant area was a densely packed throng of humanity waiting for the after-show, and the temperature and humidity had reached steam-bath levels.
Reminding myself of the fact that I had two more full days and nights ahead of me, mindful of the annoying complaints of my feet, and worrying about the pressure-cooker conditions that might prevail inside the music space, I decided to bail out.
I know, I’m a special kind of lame. But don’t judge me too harshly until you’ve reached my advanced level of age and decrepitude.
Anyone out there who did witness the after-show, please chime in with your impressions in the Comment section below. I hate that I missed it, but my body is thanking me this morning.
As I’ve come to learn since going to my first metal festival three years ago, at least half the fun of events like this comes from the chance to renew acquaintances with people scattered around the country (and the world) and to make new friends for the first time with people I’ve only “known” via the internet, or never known at all. For me, both things have happened in spades at Migration already — it’s definitely a big part of the joy this Fest has brought so far. And it’s even more special for me because the attendees also include so many familiar faces from Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland.
There was a strong “family” atmosphere at the edition of Gilead Fest that I attended in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, two summers ago, and although this event is much larger and in a different place, Migration has that same atmosphere. By that I mean that it’s like a family reunion of musicians and fans who know and support each other, but a reunion that also welcomes newcomers with open arms.
With two days left to go, I guess it might be premature to pronounce Migration Fest an unqualified success, but it’s sure feeling that way so far. I’ll have recaps of Days Two and Three at some point, sooner or later.