The Power of the Riff
Better Than… counting down your Mayan advent calendar at home alone.
Despite the US Government's attempt to convince us otherwise, we attended metal festival The Power of the Riff last night hoping that the end was, to quote 28 Days Later, “extremely fucking nigh.” To celebrate the end of civilization Southern Lord records brought together some of the finest aggressive, misanthropic, metal bands, including Void Ov Voices, Loincloth, Dead in the Dirt, and Black Breath, with High on Fire and Sunn O))) headlining.
Equal parts genre festival, label showcase, and spiritual mantra, TPOTR hosts events in multiple cities, all of which are curated by Southern Lord head/Sunn o))) guitarist Greg Anderson and his friend and fellow musician Sam Velde. Southern Lord's evolution from exclusively doom metal label to purveyor of metal-punk hybrids has been a tad controversial. But the label has maintained a reputation as a tastemaker, as well as a risk-taker when it comes to experimental and artfully-executed aggressive music.
The night began with the curtains raised suddenly on Attila Csihar, performing under the moniker Void Ov Voices. Though perhaps most notable for lending vocal work to black metal legends Mayhem, and for his frequent collaborations with Sunn o))), Csihar's solo performance revolves around the live looping of his own darkly-operatic vocalizations. Standing solemnly before a table piled high with pedals and mixers, Csihar's guttural cries eventually gave way to decidedly religious intonations. Adding layer after layer, the resultant was a brooding, writhing wall of sound (or perhaps a void) that served as a kvlt palette cleanser for the evening.
The enigmatic Loincloth followed. Boasting members from Confessor and Breadwinner, their approach to heavy metal is a fastidiously technical one. Guided by the ballistic stop-and-go abilities of drummer Steve Shelton, Loincloth blazed through a set of burly, instrumental prog jams, their time-changes confounding all those who would dare attempt to headbang.
In a night spanning multiple genres, the vegan, straight-edge Georgia boys of Dead in the Dirt were the sole ambassadors of grind, and they played to prove a point. Their songs were characteristically short, and couched in earsplitting feedback. Bassist Bo Orr's occasional high-pitched shriek contrasted guitarist Blake Connally's more traditional grindcore growl. This call and answer aspect amplified what was an incredibly energetic performance.
People tend to get hung up on identifying Black Breath's primary influences. One minute they're definitely thrash influenced death-metal, and the next they're a crust-tinged hardcore act. Invariably though, these questions give way to the awesome brutality of Black Breath, as most everyone can agree that their music is heavy and fun and makes you want to get stoned and watch horror movies. The band took the stage with “Feast of the Damned,” the opening cut off of this year's stellar Sentenced to Life. Blast beats rained down upon the audience, while singer Neil McCadams waged war on his vocal cords, and in the crowd were the first stirrings of a mosh pit. “Endless Corpse,” with its spooky, B-movie intro and sludgey breakdown, was an easy highlight of their set.
Despite ringing in their third decade as a band, Corrosion of Conformity's original three-piece lineup played with a tenacity and force to rival the younger acts on the bill. COC's history of lineup changes and internal drama could provide the plot for a soap opera, but all anyone needs to know about last night's performance is that Woody Weatherman, Mike Dean, and Reed Mullin got together and played songs from their recently released self-titled album, as well as some of COC's critically lauded, independently released early punk albums.
The snotty, floor pounding “Hungry Child,” cut from 1985's Animosity, riled the crowd and dissuaded anyone of the notion that COC has grown out of touch with its hardcore roots. Corrosion is, in its most potent form, the playful marriage of Black Flag and Black Sabbath. “Psychic Vampire,” the first track on this year's Corrosion of Conformity typified the band's brutal concoction. A murky riff-heavy verse gave way to a breakneck punk chorus, while Weatherman teased out rock n' roll indulgences-past with a brief and bluesy harmonic solo. If you listened closely, you could hear Dean affecting an undoubtedly Ozzy drawl by the end of it.
Then came High on Fire. In many ways the poster children for Southern Lord, High on Fire features the perennially shirtless Matt Pike, of god-tier stoner metal outfit, Sleep. Words fail to describe the sheer heaviness of the High on Fire live experience. Thick, undulating, slimy riffs mined from forbidden Lovecraftian depths. When High on Fire choose to truly let the stoner metal out, as they did last night with “10,000 years,” they are an unstoppable force of psychedelic hatred. “Fertile Green,” the would-be single off their latest release De Vermis Mysteriis, had the crowd at its most violent and pike at his most manic. Bottles were thrown, male-egos were hurt, and all the while Des Kensel made quick and easy work of his double bass pedals.
At 12:00 A.M. — meaning it was now December 21st — the curtains rose at The Fonda to reveal an impenetrable wall of fog. From behind the wall came a single, sustained tone of deafening volume. Frequencies were lost to massive shuddering vibration. Eventually a hooded figure emerged from the smoke and began to chant. Though masked, one could logically conclude from the esoteric, almost Gregorian intonations, that this figure was none other than Atilla Csihar guiding us down a rabbit hole of the occult.
The two core members of Sunn O))) (Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley) would occasionally make their funereal presence known, emerging briefly from the fog or holding their guitars aloft by the neck, but all deferred to the colossal wash of noise they produced. The dynamics of the droning shifted throughout the hour or so that Sunn O))) remained on stage, growing softer, sometimes taking on a percussive quality, but it never once ceased to be a completely physical, visceral experience.
Overheard in the crowd: “I really think I'd like Sunn if it wasn't for my ADHD.”
Random notebook dump: A guy in the front spent the entirety of Sunn's set artfully brandishing his middle finger at the singer.