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Live Report – SWR Barroselas Metalfest XX

Mayhem 11

Despite the numerous international acts formed in this country during the last couple of decades, Portugal’s relationship with metal is somewhat unique. While the US was celebrating Woodstock and a generation of hippies sang about love and unity, Portugal was ruled by one of the last dictatorships still in place in Western Europe – a country which was “proudly alone”, so put by authoritarian leader António Salazar. Rock was reviled by both the nationalist mob, which saw it as an affront to good customs, and the communists in the resistance, who saw it as a symbol of Yankee capitalism. With a reduced influence from the US or the UK, the counterculture found inspiration in similar movements around Spain and France. Portuguese music is often melancholic and, at the time, was packed with thinly veiled jabs against the government, explicit enough so that everyone got the hint, but covered in metaphors that allowed most musicians to avoid jail time or compulsory military service. A peaceful revolution brought democracy into the country in 1974, and 15 years of quick catching up led to a brimming rock and metal scene during the 90s.

At the turn of the century two teenage brothers, Tiago and Ricardo Veiga, decided to organize an event named “Steel Warriors Rebellion – Attack I”, with just three national bands accompanying the headliners Avulsed. Fittingly, it happened on April 25th, the anniversary of 1974’s revolution. Since then, a symbiotic relationship has formed, with the festival and the heavy metal scene feeding off each other – at Barroselas, Portuguese bands had one of the biggest crowds in the country, relationships were built which expanded the scene, and some of them last to this very day.

Steel Warriors Rebellion continues. Avulsed were invited back for this 20th anniversary and Goldenpyre, the band the Veiga brothers formed one year before the first edition, not only played as well but finally released their debut album. This year’s edition was marked by such little stories, which only serve to strengthen the fellowship that has been created throughout the years.

Day 0

There’s a folksy feeling that prevents us from believing that we’re actually going to the country’s most revered metal festival. From Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, one has to catch an unremarkable train at an unremarkable station. Buildings quickly give way to the typical countryside homes with white exteriors and ceramic roofs, and one hour later we arrive at Barroselas. Every year, during an extended April weekend, this small town with a population of 4,000 hosts around 7,000 festivalgoers from Portugal and around the globe.

From the station, a camping site sits within walking distance, just across the road from an inconspicuous venue entrance. This is one of the two security checkpoints and the access to the SWR Arena, the free stage hosting a few shows on each day. All of Day 0 takes place here and, inside the large canvas tent ready to protect the crowd from the weather (don’t be fooled by the high temperatures and blue skies during the afternoon – it will rain during the festival, it always does), a handful of average Joes from the nearby towns join the metalheads out of curiosity or just plain boredom. One of them approaches me to snark that everyone’s dressed formally except for him.

He was just there “to watch the ballet”, a remark which was particularly amusing at that time, since the next band in line was Analepsy, one of the fastest-growing brutal death metal bands on this side of the Atlantic. It didn’t make much sense to have them squeezed in between heavy thrashers Toxikull and the classic, Dickinson-esque vocal delivery of Deadlyforce, but the schedule for the day was decided through a lottery and the crowd was simply happy to get yet another edition underway.

SWR 4

Test, the Brazilian duo tasked with headlining this warm-up, made the best use of their slot and teased the fervent crowd with endless back-and-forths between ugly blast beats and downtempo, absorbed moments, disorienting a mosh pit that showed no signs of giving up. Those who were left yearning for more Test would end up with more chances to see them – first a surprise show at the SWR Bar (an actual bar inside the precinct, where meet & greets with the bands, exhibitions and various other activities take place) and another right between the main stages on the final day, resulting in one of the most chaotic moments of the whole festival.

Day 1

Aborted 5

After convincing performances by another couple of Brazilian acts – Aneurose and Chaos Synopsis – it was time to inaugurate the smaller of the two main stages. Though short, Valborg’s set was intense. The harsh German they sing in amplified the rawness of their uninviting doom-industrial-death metal combination. It was also a pleasant surprise for those who, like myself, didn’t know too much about them – more and more people entered the tent throughout the set and barely anyone left before the end. Just five minutes later, the larger, de facto main stage was invaded by Holocausto Canibal’s bloody deathgrind. Just like the festival, they celebrate 20 years in 2017 and marked the occasion by revisiting their discography throughout the set. Holocausto Canibal have played at SWR numerous times already, and as one of Portugal’s most renowned extreme metal acts they’re always a safe bet. Having them play right after Valborg wasn’t the best choice, but it segued nicely into Besta.

If Holocausto Canibal’s frontman Ricardo Silva’s persona is an imposing one, that of a self-assured predator after a killing, Besta’s Paulo Rui is a wild animal still thirsty for blood. Their politically-infused grind owes much to the crust side of things – the prey it chases are the injustices, imbalances and power dynamics of modern society. Dozens of minute-long manifestos were fired in quick succession throughout a set that kept punks and metalheads under the same canvas roof. They were then separated during the only overlapping shows of the day: La Hija Del Carroñero carried straight from where Besta left off, whereas Pillorian, frontlined by John Haughm, initiated the black metal division of the festival. Though the main stages’ tents ward off the sunlight through narrow entrances at the back, contemplative sets decidedly don’t work in this context. The sound gets too muffled, complex harmonies vanish, and all we’re left with is a glimpse of what could’ve been. The loss of energy results in a loss of interest, and this became evident not only during Pillorian but The Ruins of Beverast and Oranssi Pazuzu as well. Despite Nader Sadek’s similar emphasis on mood-setting (after all, he’s worked with Mayhem and Sunn O))), among others), his heavier set was able to keep its grip on a curious crowd enjoying, most likely for the first and last time, the sight of ex-Hate Eternal’s Derek Roddy, ex-Opeth’s Johan de Farfalla, ex-Zyklon’s Thor Anders Myhren, and ex-Obscura’s Tom Geldschläger simultaneously on stage.

For the remainder of the first day, the second stage offered Marginal’s Belgian anarchist crust, which could be labeled by-the-book if not for the oddly fitting death metal growls, and the recommended daily intake of classic thrash through Sweden’s Antichrist’s hand; as for the main stage, there were three worthy contenders for the title of headliners: Aborted, Inquisition and Master were equally impressive. The first ones had played the festival 15 years ago and were schedule to play it again last year, but a last-minute cancellation left their fans disappointed at first and jubilant soon afterwards as they were one of the first confirmations for this 20th anniversary. Their sound owes much to the three decades old Master, a band too often overlooked in death metal’s genealogy. Far from both Florida and California and too unstable in the early 80s to get themselves a good deal with any label, they remained underground until their 1990 Nuclear Blast debut. Calling them a household name may still be an overstatement, but their 2AM set was packed and presented a band at the top of their game.

Still, Inquisition were the most memorable band of the night. A voice which, in a live setting, sounds closer to the kargyraa style of throat singing than typical black metal shrieks provides the bottom end for a stripped-down band consisting of drums and a single guitar. This simplicity contributed to the clear, nearly-flawless sound they were gifted with. Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith, their latest album, was even more enthralling in a live setting.

For many attendees, the night ended after Master, but the free stage still had two performances in store. First up were The Ominous Circle, a band just recently out of the womb and straight into the abyss. This might’ve been only their second show, but the confidence of this band’s five scene veterans shone through their black hoods. Appalling Ascension, their debut album, is already a strong contender for album of the year and even when its catchy leads got lost inside the tent with the poorest sound the band remained as enticing as on record. Unfortunately, this also meant they eclipsed the first live appearance by Enlighten, another band with plenty of veterans and know-how. Less visually appealing than the previous act, they had no choice but to end the night on a lower note.

Day 2

Extreme Noise Terror 5

As I was only tasked with shooting the fest, I’ve got to admit things get a bit hazy from here on out.  In truth, this whole report was meant to be an introductory paragraph which got out of hand, and I’ll blame the typical post-festival depression as well as the urge to return to its weekend – in Portuguese, we’d call it “saudade”. While some sets are difficult to remember, Goldenpyre’s was remarkable due to their history, inextricably linked to the festival’s. It’s not every day that a band presents an album 20 years in the making and invites some of their past members on stage.

Vircator and My Master The Sun started off the second day in front of a small but respectful crowd. We’re much more used to seeing them in stoner fests than right before Fides Inversa, an abrasive black metal act that shares its drummer/vocalist with Darvaza, who played the same stage two hours later. The core of the latter is drummer Omega (Blut aus Nord) and vocalist Wraath (Behexen), and they lean towards Behexen’s style of black metal, bold and ruthless. Someone tried to offer the vocalist a beer and got his cup kicked out of his hand; someone else committed the sin of resting an elbow on the stage floor and got kicked as well. It was the polar opposite of Cobalt, who make black metal – is that what they play? – fun. “Hunt the Buffalo”, their opener both in 2016’s “Slow Forever” and in this set, started with a lead reminiscent of the stoner bands we’d just witnessed moments before, but as soon as Charlie Fell stepped onto the stage we couldn’t get our eyes off of him. Any lyric-free passage was an excuse to strut, dance, or simply get carried away by the music. If their musical direction in their latest album was already hard to predict, nothing could’ve prepared us for this kind of performance. Equally unexpected was seeing their guitarist sporting the only “Good Night White Pride” t-shirt visible throughout the festival.

When Geoff Tate and the rest of Queensrÿche had a falling out there was a period when two “Queensrÿches” toured, one with Geoff Tate and one with the remainder of the band before the break-up. At least Venom make things easier for the fans, as there are currently “Venom” and Venom Inc. While the former has been kept alive by Cronos since 2005, the latter were formed in 2015 by original drummer Abaddon, original guitarist Mantas and 1989-1992 bassist/vocalist Demolition Man. It was this trio who visited Barroselas and, while a few fans had complained about Cronos’ absence, Venom Inc managed to quickly shut them down. Revered by punks and metalheads alike, the band was greeted by one of the largest crowds of the festival and they were visibly proud of the feat, with Demolition Man insisting that genres don’t matter as long as metal unites people from all walks of life. Right afterwards, a well-spirited Mantas took credit for composing a song three decades ago that would become the blueprint for black metal. If anyone decided to see them in order to mock a tacky, outdated performance, they’d be the only ones disappointed. Not only was their good mood contagious, but “Black Metal”, “Welcome to Hell”, “Countess Bathory” and their numerous other hits sounded tighter now than when they were recorded. These guys still know what they’re doing.

Venom Inc left us in such high spirits that it’s hard to gauge whether Nashgul’s performance was really as good as it seemed, but the Spanish grindcore act was as tireless as the front rows. This might’ve been another reason for the seemingly underwhelming Oranssi Pazuzu performance that followed, as it required an abrupt change of gears, but Grog left us hyped up again. Possibly the longest-running Portuguese extreme metal act, there were plenty of fans ready to see them once again, especially now that they’ve just released Ablutionary Rituals, their fourth full-length album.

Speaking of early precursors, Extreme Noise Terror could have been considered this day’s co-headliners. In what was probably the drunkest show of the festival (who needs to sing all the lyrics when the crowd can chant them?), it’s still uncommon to see such big acts with dual vocals. Although Phil Vane passed away a few years ago, Ben McCrow can no longer be seen as merely a replacement or as the “other” ENT vocalist, but rather an integral part of the band and an effective hype man. As if two weren’t enough, we then got three vocalists on stage when Holocausto Canibal’s Ricardo Silva made a surprise appearance to sing “Raping the Earth”, a song his own band covered a couple of times in the past.

Once again, two Portuguese bands closed off the night. There’s not much to be said about Alcoholocaust – their name is self-explanatory – but the band that preceded them should come with a warning label. During a Systemik Viølence show you will be taunted, spat on, pushed away and forced to listen to endless half-assed ramblings on how everything sucks – the festival, the sound guy, the cops, the crowd and anything else in sight. Their music is just about the only thing that doesn’t suck, but their masked vocalist would be more than happy to kick you in the teeth if you started enjoying yourself too much. Have fun at your own risk.

Day 3

Mayhem 18

If Day 2 had already made me feel too old to sleep in a tent during a festival, the rain between this and the final day definitely didn’t help, leading me to shoot some of the bands almost on autopilot. The festival took its toll on the camera as well – a close encounter with Systemik Viølence‘s vocalist meant I had to shoot the rest of the gigs without a filter, and some overconfidence in battery capacity had led me to shoot the last five bands with a nearly-drained reserve battery – the main one was gone by the end of the first day. The goal here was obvious: make it last until Mayhem. Good thing it did.

Bulto, the first act of this final day, were an abnormal band due to how normal they seemed. Completely out of their element, their rock has that wonderful quality of sounding more festive simply because they sing in Spanish and it worked much better than one would guess, being arguably better than both Stone Dead and Warfect, the two bands that followed. After them, however, were Avulsed, the headliners of the first edition of the festival. Having brought with them fond memories from 1998’s edition, they’ve used these two decades to refine their classic death metal sound without ever deviating from it – a source of pride for the band, as “death metal” adorned their stage banners as well as their vocalist’s forearms. Impressed with the dimension of this year’s crowd but unimpressed by its hangover-induced languidness, he jumped from the stage and opened up a huge pit which transformed into a wall of death on command. If most of the crowd was too young to have any memories of that first SWR, this one will certainly stay with everyone.

The third day’s overlapping shows represented a much harder decision than the previous ones, as Nader Sadek and Marthyrium aren’t that far apart in terms of musical style. I’d give Marthyrium a slight edge just because more straightforward shows seem to work better in this festival and a considerable Spanish crowd made them feel right at home.

Corpus Christii were equally at home. The most well-known Portuguese black metal band has played Barroselas a number of times in the past and they never fail to deliver a devastating set to a zealous audience. This year was no exception. The band is blunt in their criticism of some “strains” of modern black metal and it has to be said that, traditional or modern, few bands make it work as well as them. Their approach is in stark contrast with Akercocke’s. During their 1997-2012 run Akercocke were one of the festival’s most beloved bands, having played it for three times, two of them as headliners. It was a no-brainer to invite them back after their 2016 reunion and, as expected, they thanked us with a mesmerizing show, including “Disappear”, a song from their upcoming album, and “Enraptured by Evil”, one they hadn’t played live in years. The ending was slightly abrupt, as they looked as though they wanted to keep playing until dawn, but we surely want them to return for a fifth time once the album is finished.

Mayhem’s history with the festival hasn’t been so smooth. Scheduled to headline the fourth edition in 2001, a sudden cancellation while SWR was already underway turned some idiots into walking clichés as they expressed their fury by desecrating the cemetery. This happened just two years after the vocalist from Agonizing Terror, a band that played the fest’s first edition, murdered his parents in a bloody and premeditated crime, and the pieces were quickly put together by every media outlet – this was music made for, and by, criminals, outcasts and satanists. The fact that the festival happened again in 2002 during the usual month and with the usual support from the town’s governing body is an amazing demonstration of the Veiga brothers’ passion and determination. Mayhem have come to Portugal since then, but this was still a special occasion – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was to be played in full. Unsurprisingly, their theatrical performance was the most visually captivating show of the whole festival. As if someone had just snatched him up from the cemetery, Attila’s face was completely unrecognizable and only his peerless vocal range gave him away until he resurged as a satanic priest, burning his hands on the altar’s candles and toying around with a human skull. Seeing him taking his time with every calculated move while Hellhammer blasted away, seldom headbanging or synchronizing his movements with the music, made his presence all the more unsettling. Not even the moshing and stage diving attempts could distract us from what was going on on stage.

The night wasn’t over, though. Right after Mayhem we had Lich King, who closed their set with “Black Metal Sucks”:

In league with the devil, talking Satan, skulls and hell
Making mommy mad, cause that’s original
If you hate good music, then it can’t hurt to go
Image-conscious assholes, black metal fashion show

The main stage’s closing show had could have gone horribly: the local philharmonic band, under the name Steelharmonics, was to play some heavy metal hits. But not only were most arrangements beautifully crafted, their less-than-exciting start with “Thunderstruck” was followed by a Black Sabbath medley and unexpected tunes such as “Abigail”, “Angel Witch” and “Fighting the World”. “Ace of Spades” served as the excuse to create the biggest moshpit of the set, while “Fear of the Dark” worked so well that it was the chosen tune for the encore.

After Test’s second surprise show, we were finally sent off by Vai-te Foder (in English, “Go Fuck Yourself”). Their vocalists nearly lost their voice during such a packed festival, but the crowd knew them well and one microphone spent a fair amount of time being passed around amongst their fans, who took care of vocal duties. The festival might’ve grown throughout the years, but this last set, stripped of the grandeur of the previous band, felt just like a small underground gig. It’s this combination, this recipe of mashing up great international acts with up and coming ones, this fondness for its roots in the Portuguese scene while still aiming higher, that makes this barely-underground festival so unique.

Words and photos by Daniel Sampaio.

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