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Live Report: Covenant Festival III

Sortilegia by Abi En
Sortilegia by Abi En

The Covenant Festival began in 2015 as an extension of the organiser’s black/death vinyl nights. The first edition, while commanding an impressive line-up, consisted of mostly bands from the region while the second event branched out further by bringing a number of more higher profile acts from overseas. For the third iteration, Covenant architect Sebastian Montesi – of Auroch and Mitochondrion – and his circle of conspirators curated a bloody, pestilent feast for fans of extreme black and death metal, drawing those near and far for the event.

The first night took place at the Red Room, normally a dance club but host to the odd metal show. In terms of volume it was a softer start, with only five acts on the bill, merciful for the Thursday night crowd. Musically speaking, however, it was anything but.

Randall Collier Ford introduced proceedings with a brief electronic set before giving way to Vancouver’s Ceremonial Bloodbath. It was the first time I’d had a chance to catch them and after hearing their Command Sacrifice demo. They did not disappoint. With members from Ahna and Haggatha, their slow, crushing riffs welcomed attendees to the weekend in devastating fashion.

Another stalwart local band, Firecult, was up next. One of the most reliable black metal bands in the city, their sound is fairly orthodox – they were the only black metal band in a weekend chock full of them to don corpse paint – but they do it very well and always put on an excellent show.

Edmonton’s Phylactery followed; a pretty straightforward death metal power trio that featured some wonderfully vile vocals from drummer Kevin Trueblood, also of Dire Omen. Though their forthcoming debut Necromancy Enthroned will certainly be on my radar when it drops this summer, I was mostly just anticipating Blood Incantation by the time their set wrapped up.

Blood Incantation was the only band of the weekend with the distinction of having also appeared at last year’s festival. The 2016 rendition was an opening slot and preceded the release of their highly acclaimed debut album Starspawn, so to see them return for a longer set this year was deeply satisfying.

It began like nearly every other set that weekend, with a plea to the soundman for max reverb on the vocals, and then the Red Room was launched through the star-gate. Besides being a total riff factory, full of frenetic energy and blistering solos, they also brandished a fantastically nerdy sense of humour. Delivered in a deadpan monotone, questions like “How do you guys feel about Kurt Russell?” and “What’s really going on in Antarctica?” delighted the heshers up front. I would be more than happy to see them back every year.

Night two was a much earlier start, and the first of two nights at The Rickshaw Theatre. Nestled in the heart of Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside, the Rickshaw – and surrounding venues like the Astoria – is the host of most metal shows in the city. Bigger name tours may land on the touristy Granville strip once in awhile, but the bulk of them take place there, in one of the poorest zip codes in North America. It is a familiar area to most local metalheads and the sights of the city’s destitute is unfortunately commonplace, so it is always interesting when bands roll through town to note their reactions to it.

As with the previous night, and the one to follow, a set of dark-ambient electronic music kicked things off – this time by Vancouver’s own Kanashibari. The subtlety of said ambiance was reduced to ashes once Amphisbaena took the stage for what was apparently their first ever performance. I was only vaguely familiar with them beforehand – made up of members of Antediluvian and Rites of thy Degringolade with an EP to their name – but they were absolutely ferocious. Timothy Grieco, the intimidating figure who can be seen most publicly as the touring bassist and barker for Revenge, was on vocal duties and gave a legitimately creepy performance. Stalking the stage adorned in rags and a disturbing paper mache-looking mask, his otherworldly growls and shrieks coupled with the bludgeoning force of the music to make a memorable chaotic cocktail.

Portland’s Shroud of the Heretic was next. After having to cancel their performance from last year’s festival I was looking forward to finally seeing them. Unfortunately it seemed their set was marred by sound issues. At first it was just the drums that needed to be turned up, but for most of the set the band kept looking at one another as if they could not hear each other. Perhaps it was their intention, but they produced a wall of sound so impenetrable that I could hardly tell what was going on.

To further drive home the perplexing nature of their sound issues, Phoenix AZ’s Harvest Gulgaltha followed with a set that was crystal clear; or as clear as death metal can be. Even the lyrics were intelligible! Their set was tailor made head banging material: doom-laden riffs and double kicks interspersed with precise blasts. However, it was still on the earlier side for a Friday night and the crowd was fairly sparse, though that would not last much longer. As more attendees drifted in, they poked through the tables from vendors like Cavity Curiosity and Kaos Kult, checking out pendants, drinking horns, animal skulls, occult books, and other manner of esoteric souvenirs.

By the time England’s Qrixkuor took the stage, masked and anonymous, the venue had filled out significantly. For the kind of music they play – cavernous, suffocating black/death metal with run-times of nearly 15 minutes per song – it wouldn’t have been shocking if things got a little monotonous, but Qrixkuor were riveting throughout. Long though the songs are, they were always dynamic and the band themselves put on an energetic performance.

Qrixkuor by Abi En
Qrixkuor by Abi En

While it had all the intensity of the previous bands, Sortilegia’s performance was a much more introspective affair. All lights, save two that pointed to a projection of the band’s logo on either side of the stage, were turned off. The only other illumination came from a few candles on a makeshift altar at the front of the stage, also bearing several sticks of incense. Guitarist and vocalist Anastasia approached the altar in a black robe with her face covered in blood and the ritual began. It was a staggering set of tortured banshee howls, mournful shredding and lightning fast blast beats from drummer Cameron Warrack, who may as well have been a spectre in the shadows for all you could see in the hazy darkness. Anastasia swayed and wailed looking to be as lost in the music as the transfixed people in the crowd.

Still, it was the final act of night that held my rapt attention most. Bolzer’s first appearance in Vancouver was a few years previous and their set felt much shorter than I would have hoped, so it was nice to see them back so soon. It was also incredibly fitting to have them as the centerpiece for the third Covenant Festival seeing as their last album HERO had such a focus on the mystical quality of trinities and the valknut in particular.

Their performance was a primal rite bathed in dry ice; KzR’s growls and thunderous riffs and HzR’s martial drums urged the night on into oblivion. The sound was, thankfully, flawless and the band itself was as tight as ever. The set leaned heavily on HERO with much applauded appearances from Aura, the EP that essentially brought them to the world stage. The crowd was in its most frenzied state of the evening and I glanced over to see the fellows in Harvest Gulgaltha at the front of the stage going the craziest. It must have had some impact as Bolzer finished their set, bowing to the crowd, and after chants for more, returned stating “We never do this, so thank you” before playing an encore of “Zuess – Seducer of Hearts” from their Roman Acupuncture demo.

The final day of Covenant saw things commence with the “Hangover” Vendors Market set up at the Black Lab, an all-ages DIY space across the street from the Rickshaw. Those who were feeling spry enough could venture there as early as noon and sip mimosas while they poked through the various records, shirts, and occult wares available.

A cluster of bands were also on offer – Negative Vortex from Oakland, Victoria’s Human Agony and Vancouver’s own Ahna – to warm things up. At the last minute Blood Incantation also hopped on the bill for their second set of the weekend. Though it was tempting, I opted to instead to catch a few songs of depressive black metal from Edmonton’s Brulvanahtu in what may have been their first ever live show. Triumvir Foul followed with their brand of crust-infused OSDM in what turned out to be one of my favourite sets of the weekend. The Portland three piece’s dual vocal attack, filthy riffs, and galloping beats served as yet another lesson in making sure to catch the openers.

Rites of Thy Degringolade was up next, and the excitement in the crowd was palpable. They had served as a headliner for the first edition of Covenant fest, and as the organizers themselves put it on their own facebook page “without them there would be no Covenant as it is”. Aside from a few quick mic issues for drummer/founding member Paulus Kressman, the band was front-to-back, rock solid. Kressman stood up from his kit at his great height announcing each song in stream-of-consciousness growls before unleashing the next invocation. All four members of the band took turns on vocals, at points becoming a cacophonous chorus of shrieks. They were incredibly tight and looked as if they’ve been playing together for years rather than a few isolated gigs since their resurrection in 2015. The only song they’ve released since reformation, called “The Universe in Three Parts”, made an appearance – perhaps another coincidental tribute to the third day of the third Covenant – and hopefully serves as indication of more great things to come.

New Zealand’s Heresiarch arrived with a set of pummelling, straight ahead, Cro-Magnon death metal. The band stood nearly motionless for the duration of the set. Save for the odd raised fist, vocalist N.H. stood firmly planted, scowling at the audience as though he wanted to kill everyone in the room. It was intense in its own way, but served as a much needed break for myself. There was still much more to come.

Necroholocaust began as you would expect them to: by adorning the stage in skulls and large goat pentagrams. After fourteen years of various festival appearances in other countries, they were bringing their brand of goat worship to a hometown show for the first time and there were clearly some die hards in the room.

Vocalist/bassist David Nasz came out wearing an inverted-cross of Flava Flav proportions; you could have bludgeoned someone to death with it, and maybe that was the point. The bulk of the set was wall-to-wall blast beats and savage riffing, but there was the odd breakdown, to keep oneself from getting totally lost in the buzzing vortex of sound. Live guitarist/vocalist Kevin Smith (aka Peversor of Unholy Disorder), who plays in a slew of local bands including Chapel and Radioactive Vomit, shredded and snarled his way through the set, his demeanour always bordering on being totally unhinged. Before I knew it, he tossed an empty beer can into the crowd and the ritual was complete.

The final act of the festival announced itself with an air-raid siren played over top of the timeless “Here is a man…” Taxi Driver monologue. It was the first headlining set for long running Edmonton war-metal-cult Revenge in our fair city, and it was abundantly clear from all the shirts in the room what band most people had come to see. It was my first time seeing them and I was eager to see legendary drummer and Revenge mastermind J. Read in action. The opening dirge of “Us and Them” kicked things off and from there until the end, the mass assembled at the Rickshaw were subjected to a torrent of vicious blasts, manic squealing solos and screams from vocalist/guitarist Vermin, and a barrage of disgusting growls from Grieco on bass. There was also, of course, the almost obligatory dedication to the old guard of Blasphemy, the members of who are always in attendance to witness bands of their flock. The sheer violence of Revenge’s songs is one thing on a set of headphones and quite another to be seen live. As a testament to their inspirations I glanced towards the pit to see the hulking guitarist from Heresiarch shirtless and arms aloft, stalking around the floor as if the animal was taking over.

I noticed Anastasia of Sortilegia and the fellows in Bolzer nodding along, raising fists and drinks alike. It was a simple reminder of the sort of event that Covenant is: an intimate gathering of peers to celebrate death and underground extreme metal. It is not a case of “entertainers and entertained”; it is a place where, often, artist and fan are one and the same; where the bands playing are simply the events revolving around the community itself. For a festival filled to the brim with darkness and death, it was a paradoxically warm event with plenty of laughs amid old friends reuniting and new allegiances formed. May the Covenant reign upon us all again next year.

—Coleman Ingram

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the article attributed the photos to Milton Stille. The photos were taken by Abi En]

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