Scene Dive: Inside Porto’s Tireless Metal Movement
This article is the first in a planned series that will explore different cities’ extreme music scenes, taking you to the venues, rehearsal spaces, record stores, and other places where the heart of metal beats in locations around the world. This inaugural Scene Dive is a visit with the DIY heshers of Porto, Portugal.
Porto, the Undefeated City, sits perched on steep bluffs where the Douro River meets the Atlantic. It is Portugal’s second-largest city after the capital, Lisbon, and as Portus Cale, it is the place from which the modern country’s predecessor emerged. Porto’s history of naval travel has had a profound impact on the city—while acquainting Portuenses, the city’s denizens, with the cultural spoils of South America, Africa, and elsewhere, it also acquainted the numerous citizens who remained with saudade, a uniquely Portuguese sense of longing and loss.
“Portugal has a very dark side,” Gaerea’s anonymous guitarist says. “It goes back to those times [of] saying goodbye to someone you love… People went to the harbor and said goodbye to their loved ones when they went off to another world. And they would probably not come back.” Bassist and Larvae Records founder Zé Pedro calls saudade “kind of a core component of Portuguese identity,” one that has informed centuries of musicians, from fado singers to the country’s modern metalheads.
More recently, Porto has, like many European cities, seen a flood of tourists, many from neighboring Spain as well as the UK and France. In some respects, the city is living through a version of the same predicament faced by places like Berlin or Prague. After decades of repression, stagnation, and war abroad left Porto sleepy and affordable, it became an attractive destination for creatives, whose improvement of the cityscape was followed by aggressive moves from others to capitalize on it. Visitors, lured by neighborhoods stacked like tiers of a cake on either side of the river, were followed by international commerce and chain retail. Rents rose. Some artists were forced to seek newer, cheaper spaces.
But the city’s arts scene, which breathed new life into it at the turn of the millennium, is alive and well in 2021. In DIY spaces like Stop, an abandoned mall the city has threatened with demolition, a close-knit community of musicians is pushing the boundaries of metal. A growing variety of record stores connects the Undefeated City with the global hardcore, shoegaze, and black metal scenes. Porto, in turn, is poised to make historic contributions to those genres—as long as the deluge of tourism, loss of local culture, and ongoing pandemic don’t end the city’s renaissance prematurely.
“A VERY ARTSY, TRASHY VIBE”
The metal scene in Portugal is small but mighty. Gaerea’s guitarist says that “it’s impossible to be a member of a touring band in this country without ever mentioning the people who started it all—Moonspell.” These Gothic metallers from Lisbon got together in 1989 and have released 11 full-lengths in the years since. Moonspell has attracted a robust fanbase in their home country as well as in Germany.
Meanwhile in Porto, bands like Holocausto Canibal pushed Portuguese metal into heavier territory. Influenced by Iron Maiden, Metallica, and other 80s mainstays, Pedro, Holocausto Canibal’s sole remaining original member, sought ways to push the genre. “From then on, the eagerness to discover more things, and preferably more and more extreme, was incessant,” he says. A few shops and venues emerged around that time and supported those in search of ways to push their sound. “There was a heavy metal shop in the center of Porto that played a pivotal role throughout my journey in the underground,” Pedro says, “the Halloween Heavy Metal shop that existed for some years in the mid ‘90s.” The shop was owned by since-deceased Web vocalist David Duarte, who “acted as a true pioneer, boosting the entire Porto and national scene.”
Holocausto Canibal got their start in 1997. In addition to Web, Pedro cites Gangrena, Genocide, Tarantula, and Xeque-Mate as early influences. While Gangrena and Genocide laid the foundation for the city’s death metal scene, Holocausto Canibal’s goregrind- and slam-influenced sound pushed it further. The band continues to release music and has a full-length in the works for 2022. Pedro has also played with The Ominous Circle and industrial metal act Grunt, and since founding Larvae Records in 2013, Pedro has tried “to reissue underground classics that today are very difficult to find at decent prices.” Larvae’s catalogue has grown to 50 releases including the latest from Brazilian grinders Rot.
Pedro has deep roots in his hometown. He reminisces about the sound of the knife sharpener and the smell of cooking, though noting that “unfortunately, certain sounds and smells that indelibly marked my youth were extinguished as a result of the inevitable urban evolution.” Like others, he has witnessed significant changes in the past 20 years.
André Mendes, the promoter who runs Amplificasom, says “Porto was a very different city [back then]. Finding a house wasn't the problem; the problem was to find a habitable one on a safe street. Bands wouldn't come here [on tour], so to get to shows, you'd have to go to Lisbon.” Frustrated by the lack of musical variety, Mendes started Amplificasom in 2006. He has since helped book artists ranging from Neurosis to Zola Jesus in venues such as Hard Club, located in the Mercado Ferreira Borges, a red iron structure in the heart of downtown Porto.
Mendes, Pedro, and others cite the boutique record store Piranha as another early place to gather. Piranha has been around since 1995, a sort of warm-weather Helvete in Porto’s Boavista neighborhood, and continues to be an important metal destination. Meanwhile, local musicians looking for a practice space found refuge in a derelict shopping mall, a concrete vestige of the 80s clad in sheet metal and glass, which had long since been painted over inside and out by successive graffiti artists and local kids. Others began practicing among the shuttered stores and built ad hoc rehearsal spaces, which were followed by several recording studios, and finally by a café and small venue, Metalpoint. As Stop, this drab, blocky building, at odds with the ochre townhouses on either side, has become the epicenter of Porto’s rock and metal scenes.
“We rehearse in a very special place,” Gaerea’s guitarist says of Stop. “It’s really easy to meet other musicians. It’s a very artsy, trashy vibe. We feel at home there.” He estimates around 400 bands call the hulking structure home. Marcelo Aires, drummer and keyboardist for Sullen, Rei Bruxo, and formerly The Ominous Circle, says Stop’s Metalpoint is one of “the main catalysts for metal artists in the city, for sure.” But in his view, this tight-knit incubator can be limiting as well. “The Porto metal scene is cool if you just want to make music for your friends and grow within a very limited but dedicated fan-base,” Aires says. “If you want anything bigger and more ambitious than that, you'll have to go beyond borders.”
Small and bounded on two sides by water, Portugal has always looked beyond borders for culture, exploration, and plunder. But now that those from abroad are coming in ever-greater numbers to visit, prices in Porto have gone up accordingly. This sharp increase in the commodification of the city has ramifications for its musicians. Like Berlin’s Kunsthaus Tacheles, Stop and other radical spaces face the increasing pressures of gentrification and overtourism.
The rest of the world “discovered” Porto in the mid-2000s. Its vistas, quaint cafés and bed and breakfasts, and location close to some of Portugal’s best beaches drew tourists in droves prior to COVID. Like San Francisco and other coastal cities, Portuenses (the name for citizens of Porto) often awake to find their hometown shrouded in névoa—maritime fog. “[Our band’s] name actually came from Porto being how it is,” says Nuno Craveiro, one half of post-black duo Névoa. “We would get up for college early in the morning… and see all this fog hanging below the hill.”
As often as not in the late 2010s, this fog teemed with tourists heading out for a day of sightseeing and gastronomy. For locals, this has impacted housing. “You can’t live there anymore,” Mendes says. “Tourism was booming before the pandemic and will keep booming, but such is housing speculation that I wonder when the city itself [will] turn into a hotel.” Local housing has made way for short-term rentals; mom-and-pop restaurants have yielded to Starbucks.
“There were some cases of really amazing music clubs closing doors to give way to new restaurants and hotels, which is truly sad,” says Aires. “The main disadvantage of living there [is] increasingly higher rents, due to the never-ending demand for new restaurants, hotels, AirBnB's and everything regarding tourism.”
João Freire, Névoa’s other main member, agrees. “Before COVID, there was way too much. An avalanche of tourists everywhere. It was insane,” he says. Freire mentions a former venue that hosted bands like Full of Hell and Nothing that has since become a chic Thai restaurant as an example of gentrification. But the pandemic has changed things somewhat. “Now, it’s strange because it kind of looks like the Porto I knew from when I was a child. I used to be scared of going downtown—it has a sort of Gothic look, the downtown zone—and now it’s really empty [again].”
COVID impacted the city’s artists as it did everywhere. Tours were canceled, recording was put on hold. However, Porto’s metal musicians, like others afflicted by saudade before them, turned their sorrows into music and released pivotal works in 2020. In spite of the virus, there’s vitality. “There’s a lot of new record shops opening in the city, and in areas I would not expect to have record shops,” Gaerea’s guitarist says. “It looks like there’s a lot of interest for alternative stuff again.” In 2021, with the continued uncertainty of the pandemic on top of Porto’s affordability issues, the question is whether this interest can sustain itself.
“A GOOD MIX OF GENRES”
Porto’s metal output gives some positive indicators. Following acts like Holocausto Canibal, the city’s musicians have put their own spin on different genres of metal. Mysterious blackened death metallers The Ominous Circle took aesthetic cues from Portal, releasing Appalling Ascension in the US on 20 Buck Spin and playing Migration Fest in 2018. Oak took funeral doom into atmospheric territory with 2019’s Lone. And Gaerea released 2020’s excellent Limbo, a furious black metal LP that brought the hooded group to its apotheosis.
“Limbo has a very strong connection with our 2019 touring schedule. We’ve had this lineup for that long, and it’s the first lineup we ever had for touring,” Gaerea’s guitarist says. “Everyone stayed very focused and earned their spot.” Limbo was recorded between concerts in 2019 and sat ready for release when the virus hit and the band canceled their tours and waited. “We thought people would be home, would need distraction and would need music in their lives… We can’t complain. 2020 was our biggest year,” the guitarist says wryly of Limbo’s release. “A lot of people are still buying it, posting it, streaming it, doing fan videos, sending art… It was an album that helped us grow a lot.” The band plans a frantic year of shows in 2022 if everything goes well in the meantime.
Porto supports an experimental and jazz scene, which Mendes and Névoa’s Craveiro and Freire speak of fondly. Mendes cites HHY and the Macumbas as one of the city’s most innovative acts, and Névoa has drawn from this other part of the city’s sonic palette. Of their 2016 release, Re Un, Craveiro says they were “trying to create a ritualistic mood experience,” citing Oranssi Pazuzu and the Finnish scene as influences on the record’s heavy atmosphere. “We were listening to some jazz already at the time but didn’t have the capacity ourselves to make a good mix of genres,” he says. “We were really sick of blast beats,” Freire says. Craveiro laughs. “The first record was all blast beats. The new one [Towards Belief] has one.”
Towards Belief had a tortured birth. Freire and Craveiro say they had mostly finished the record by the end of 2018. “We always had this dream, I guess, this aspiration of the ‘next step,’” Freire says. The duo felt assured that they’d be able to take the album on an international tour, having played Roadburn more than once, but after a struggle to find a home for the record on a label, COVID hit. “We kind of were in this strange limbo where we couldn’t move forward,” Freire says. “We just said, ‘okay, we’re just going to release this,’” Craveiro notes. “We thought people would enjoy this right now, [so] at least people have something new to listen to [during COVID].”
Towards Belief truly is something new, a seamless fusion of jazz and metal. The band knew from the beginning they would benefit from featured musicians. Craveiro and Freire reached out to other metal musicians, seeking soft vocals or other additions, but finally enlisted saxophonist Julius Gabriel and trumpeter Arve Henrikson to play on the six-song LP. The record is awash with warm tones and cavernous spaces, the harsh vocals like a primal scream in a high-ceilinged gallery. Névoa is “playing the most forward-thinking heavy music that Porto ever saw and record after record keeps showing their level of creativity and ambition,” Mendes says. With blended elements that would sit right with fans of Altar of Plagues or Bohren and Der Club of Gore, Towards Belief was a slept-on highlight of 2020.
The band was discouraged by the album’s long incubation period and is unsure of what is next. Both members are currently otherwise occupied, though Craveiro continues to compose electronic music, working on projects like vau. Regarding the band’s future, Freire says, “it’s going to be a thing from one day to the other… It’s going to be Nuno sends me a shitty recording from his phone with a new riff.” Craveiro laughs. “We’ll see,” he says.
The musicians interviewed here all hedged when asked about the future. Though smaller-scale festivals like semibreve are slated for October, Mendes has moved Amplificasom’s next Amplifest to 2022. Except for virtual events hosted with the municipal theater Rivoli, Amplificasom has tabled everything else due to the virus. “We need to keep fighting to survive and wait for better days,” Mendes says. For Pedro, who canceled Porto Death Fest IV, which was to feature Undergång, Morta Skuld, and a dozen others, the pandemic has also been a hardship. “All of my bands have had a lot of concerts canceled and almost all of them outside the country,” he says. He has redoubled efforts at Larvae to release music while tours remain on hold.
Others remain more optimistic. Gaerea’s guitarist teased a November event and sounded hopeful that the band will play the 100+ dates they have planned next year: “We’ve tried to not be very pessimistic about the pandemic. We can’t control it. We can’t go full of rage to the internet and complain about governments. It’s not just Europe or Portugal. If we get shows canceled in Porto, they’ll probably be canceled in NYC.”
Meanwhile, Portugal has slowly moved to readmit other EU residents as well as Americans, Australians, and others—with a negative COVID test and proof of vaccination. A mask mandate and capacity restrictions remain, but tourists are returning. Riffs again ring out in Stop’s rehearsal spaces despite municipal pressure, and Porto’s metalheads are out again to buy records, saudade be damned. “I think I appreciate it more than a few years ago,” Freire says of his hometown, to which he returned after some time living abroad. “I like the nooks and crannies of it,” Craveiro adds. Artsy strips like Bombarde and venues like Hard Club and Auditório CCOP continue to provide a home for the arts. As Freire notes, “musically, there’s definitely a lot of interesting stuff. I think people really make an effort to have an interesting scene.”
“It’s good to have all these tourists going around the city and discovering these scenarios,” Gaerea’s guitarist says. “They hear this live music—it doesn’t matter if it’s metal, or pop, or rock, or jazz, or indie, whatever—they go inside and enjoy themselves… and the city shapes these tourists.” He fondly notes how loud the city can be, the way its residents yell to one another across subway platforms in conversation. “We’re very intense with our words,” he says. The musical landscape reflects that intensity.
“Porto is a city that feels like a village, and it’s a box of surprises,” says Mendes. “You need to allow yourself to get lost in the tiny streets [to] discover it.”