If you’ve ever been to the Pacific Northwest during the autumnal transition, you’d know that Fall Into Darkness is as appropriate a name as any for a metal festival in Portland. Every year, the region trips headlong into fall seemingly overnight. One day college kids are kicking back microbrews and tossing Frisbees, the next they’re huddled under the awning of the nearest café, smoking American Spirits and waiting out the deluge. No warning. “Hey everyone, hope you mentally prepared yourselves to not see the Sun for six months!” Unfortunately, the dark season was running a few weeks late for the festival’s sixth iteration, so the 12 bands carefully curated by Witch Mountain drummer and PDX promoter extraordinaire Nathan Carson acted as more of a clarion call for drearier days than a celebration of the clear skies over Rip City.
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DAY 1: FRIDAY OCTOBER 4
These Portland proggers got the festivities going on a subdued note, easing us into the eclectic proceedings. You see, while Fall Into Darkness began as a strictly metal affair, it has lived up to its name by branching out to include bands that fall under the general tag of “dark” music. Aranya features Witch Mountain’s Uta Plotkin on vocals, violin and guitar, but they bring a psychedelic sensibility to their brand of heavy over Plotkin and Carson’s bluesy doom project. This wouldn’t be the last time the crowd would witness violin abuse over the festival’s run, or even its first night. Plotkin’s violin dueled with subtle melodic sensibilities that recalled Hawkwind at times and Gentle Giant at others before gliding into Iommi-zed riffage. Oh yeah, and if it wasn’t already apparent from her performances in Witch Mountain, Plotkin can belt out some seriously strong notes.
Carson called Wild Hunt the weekend’s “wild card”. As the only true black metal band on the entire itinerary, the young Oakland quartet were tasked with bringing the fury on an otherwise downtempo evening. What proceeded was 45 minutes of flipped-on-its-head bleakness and fiery tremolo courtesy of this year’s impressive debut, Beyond the Plane of Angles. As an answer to the meditative Cascadian scene, Wild Hunt strung together flurries of athletic drumwork and odd-timed riffing between outright rawness influenced by the band’s urban environment. A reminder
that black metal was more than a little inspired by punk rock, and a sound that bears more than a passing resemblance to sorely missed Bay Area heroes Ludicra.
It’s no exaggeration to say Utah’s SubRosa comprised the majority of my decision to make the trek from Sacramento to Portland. They rarely play live, and when they do it’s either in their hometown of Salt Lake City or at an obscure venue in the Pacific Northwest. OK, the latter was still the case, but sometimes you just need to go to the music, you know? Carson was just as stoked as I was to see the ladies and gentlemen flex their thundering orchestral doom at a venue that could actually handle the sonic complexities of balancing two electric violins with the standard guitar, bass and drums, not to mention Rebecca Vernon’s breathy incantations. When the band lurched into “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes”, I knew the guys manning the boards earned their stripes (Vernon would later tell me they spent a half hour soundchecking the strings before the venue opened). On record, SubRosa’s apocalyptic sonatas are hypnotic and foreboding; live, their sound is positively enveloping. Vernon’s choruses – terse and declarative phrases heavily influenced by Cormac McCarthy – transform into powerful mantras, and Kim Pack and Sarah Pendleton’s violins flit between soothing lullabies and droning hornet’s nests. “We’re in the shadow of a dying world,” Vernon intoned during “The Inheritance”’s waning minutes as the room grew darker with each refrain.
This is the second instance of something I like to call the Aesop Effect. When Aesop Dekker filters Agalloch’s majestic back catalogue – evocative of the band’s Pacific Northwest origins – through his punk-infused drumming, the result is more feral intensity and rock bombast than sprawling majesty. It’s a transformation wholly appropriate for a live setting. I’ve always found Worm Ouroboros’ studio output fairly underwhelming, but their laconic brand of chamber drone promised to provide a nice somber note to end the festival’s first evening. With Dekker behind the kit, Lorraine Rath and Jessica Way’s chilled-out project received the occasional crust treatment, as the Bay Area skinsman switched gears from jazzy half time to swinging two step, peppering Rath’s undulating bass with his powerful fills to complement a dynamic performance that’ll force me to lend this year’s Come the Thaw some more serious eartime.
DAY 2: SATURDAY OCTOBER 5
Doom Night kicked off with newly minted Portland quintet Ephemeros. The guys were apparently pretty thrilled when Carson asked them to open the evening despite having only a handful of shows to their name, and that excitement transferred to the stage as they plowed through three funeral doom excursions with more energy than the genre usually commands. At one point vocalist Josh’s mike shorted out, so he proceeded to go J.R. Hayes on us, screaming over the dual-guitar din loud enough to be heard by the dudes guzzling PBRs at the back bar.
Cape Fear, North Carolina has provided the world with two things: a ridiculous film about an eyewitness being stalked by an Oscar-nominated Robert DeNiro, and sludge lords Sourvein. Both are equally disturbing, but only one is friends with Eyehategod, and only one throttled the The Branx’s stage monitors to within an inch of their lives. Founder and frontman Troy Medlin strutted and contorted around the stage as he spat his mystical misanthropy. In what would be a trend for the evening, old mixed with new as the band tore through classics like “Uneasy,” and new jams like “Gemini” from last year’s excellent Black Fangs. I blame these guys for the leg pain I suffered the week following the festival, but how can you not stomp your foot to such righteous grooves?
Speaking of righteous grooves, Weedeater almost didn’t bring them. After a now-public fight between mainman Dixie Collins and drummer Keith Kirkum left the latter injured and out of the band, Collins and guitarist Dave Sheperd soldiered on without anyone manning the kit. The guys would have been forgiven for taking a few days to regroup, but instead they enlisted the help of Jeffrey Moen and Henry Vasquez of tourmates Sourvein and Saint Vitus, respectively. What followed was a musical chairs of sludgy proportions, with the two stickmen tagging each other out for songs they knew. “We’ve got one more for you guys, unless anyone out there knows any of our songs and wants to play,” said Collins half-jokingly. If only someone took him up on the offer.
After shooting the shit with road warrior, merch slinger and all around badass Kim Kelly, I turned around to find The Branx packed asses to ankles for our headliners. No small feat for a venue built like a truck depot. Then again, this is Vitus we’re talking about; the founders of American doom metal. Vitus strike me as that old guy giving you the stink eye from the corner of every dive bar across America. You’re afraid to ask him what his problem is because he just might know something you don’t and proceed to clean your clock in front of your buddies. The three remaining founders (like most drummers in aging bands, Vasquez is considerably younger) come from a hard living past. Respect is due only if you earned it. That night – between the mass of denim elbowing each other for Wino’s fifth of Jack and everyone in attendance raising their fists to the refrain of new album Lillie F: 65’s barnburning anthem “The Waste of Time” – we did. For our reward, Wino ordered the house lights be turned on during the band’s encore and we all cowered in our sudden nakedness like a mob of basement trolls. Then they tore through “Windowpane” and everything was perfect.
DAY 3: SUNDAY OCTOBER 6
For our the festival’s last night, Eight Bells brought us back on the prog kick. Guitarist Melynda Jackson and drummer Chris Von Huffel linked up for some seriously knotted rhythms that sounded an awful lot like SubArachnoid Space because, well, they used to be in SubArachnoid Space. Eight Bells share more than just a name with SAS’ final record; they pick up right where the Portland via San Francisco act left off. Psychedelic jams that don’t skimp on the heavy, anchored and propelled by Haley Westiener’s jaw-dropping basswork. A national tour with Eight Bells, Behold the Arctopus and Electro Quarterstaff would triple Berklee’s applications.
It’s always a fun surprise when a band you’ve listened to on record and assumed to be a three piece turns out to be just drum and bass. That’s how incredibly versatile Dylan Desmond’s (also of Samothrace) playing is. A few minutes into Bell Witch’s set I turned to YOB mainman Mike Scheidt and asked, “No guitar?” “No, he’s just that good,” he responded flatly. Together with drummer Adrian Guerra, Desmond conjured the slowly unfurling subtleties of his other project with an added sense of dread and melancholy. Perhaps it’s the haunted house legend from which the band derives its moniker, but there’s an unsettling nature to their elongated, minimalist doom. Melodies are born and then buried, only to take phantasmal form minutes later, as if rising from the floorboards. Judging from the tracks they played off of their upcoming Profound Lore debut, Longing will be a year-end gatecrasher.
Let me see what memories of VHÖL’s set I can dig out from the scrambled recesses of my consciousness during those 45 minutes. I remember standing close enough to the stage to rest my beer and palms on it. I remember Mike Scheidt leaning over me screaming his brains out. I remember John Cobbett shredding like Demonaz back before he contracted tendonitis. I remember Sigrid Sheie thrumming out baselines that were far hookier than music played this viscously had any right to be. And I remember Aesop Dekker’s sticks flying around his kit so quickly that splinters of wood peppered the amps next to him. After that my neck gave out and I could only nod my head to every other beat. If VHÖL had played all nine songs they had written instead of six, I’m sure no one in the crowd would have any recollection of the evening.
I’ve never seen the front and center spot at a show vacated as much as it was during Wolvserpent’s closing set. Once I finally claimed the coveted position, I realized why. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard an electric violin played through two Sunn stacks, but it’s a harrowing experience. Not good for the soul or the ears, but it’s something I won’t soon forget. And that was the quiet part of their set. Once Brittany McConnell set down her strings in favor of drum mallets and Blake Green channeled his blackened drone through his own twin Sunns, well, let me tell you that being sandwiched between two pairs of amps blasting animosity at full power from behind a pair of cow skulls will change your outlook on existence. “What matters anymore? All I want is to escape this with my hearing and most of my thoughts intact.” Thankfully, the Boise duo took mercy on my weary soul before grey matter started leaking out through my earplugs.
Photos by Justine Murphy.