Candlelight-RecordsThe second day of the Candlefest sees an eclectic mix of bands including a few that I have never seen and a headliner playing their swansong. It was an early start as one band I did not want to miss was The Earls Of Mars. Trivia fact this was the second opening act with an ex member of Centurions Ghost in their ranks (perhaps proving them as the ones that got away from Candlelight). However attention was drawn to keyboard bonker vocalist Harry ‘Hangnail’ Armstrong who really took centre stage on this matinee performance. Songs like ‘The Swinger Who Swung,’ transcended anything you were expecting to hear today with heavy bass sound booming out and rocking away with a lounge, carnival cabaret vibe about it. It would have been perfect music for a burlesque performance (now there’s a thought once they are rich and famous) as it did its alley cat strut. Even playing keys with elbows did not stop this one swinging. Stories about alcoholic Martians were trotted out with zany flamboyance and a lysergic sense about them and as for ‘The Astronomer Pig’ it was a perfect song for the band to really ham it up and by the applause it got at the end it really did bring home the bacon. Think a progressive slew of Kraut Rock, Beefheart, Diablo Swing Orchestra, Vulture Industries, Zappa, Fat Freddy’s Cat and double dipped window panes and you may be in the right sort of head space for this and I see bigger venues or institutions for this lot in the future.

From the decedent and sublime to the absolute workmanlike and exactly what was expected from at least one band of the day, neck cracking death metal. To be honest I was going to step outside for Ancient Ascendant as I have seen them way too many times but the skies had opened and a flash flood of biblical proportions was occurring. Besides it was not the bands fault (playing again or the weather) as they had stepped in at last minute to replace an AWOL October File. There is no faulting the Reading mob at all, they deliver a solid performance every time and the brutality honed through, guitars scything and bass rumbling with leaden quality through numbers like ‘Titan’. This had a slight blackened edge about it before the meaty cleaving deathly focus took over with a nice underlying technical edge pervading through it.

Next up was the section of three bands who I had never caught before. The first of these Crown from France had impressed with recent debut album Psychurgy and I was keen to see how this drum machine enhanced act would translate to the stage. It worked out that once they got going they dropped us into their ‘Abyss’ of sound quite nicely. The two guitarists and bassist lined up the front of the stage and the thick multi-layered sound surged out the speakers as they rigorously attacked their instruments. Slowing down to chilled brooding parts and crashing in with an acerbic post-industrial tumult they certainly kept us on our toes. Unfortunately the caustic mass of the music meant that vocals struggled to get out through the mix and this was something that seemed to crop up later in the day too but luckily it was the power of the riff that compelled and transfixed us. The band pretty much played through the album or that of it which they could fit into their time slot moving from ‘Blood Runs’ to Empress Hierophant’ without pause for anything as unnecessary as stage banter. It was the music that was left to do the talking here and it had us straddling an icy plateau as the monolithic slabs of noise had everyone caught up swaying to their multi-hued textures. At times they reminded of Jesu as fragments glistened at others the more fist-pumping surge of Godflesh. Last number from early EP ‘The One’ was called Mare and between it and the weather outside it was a wonder that the building was left standing. The sound of silence descended but with the buzzing left in my ears I wondered if anything would truly ever be silent again.

It was still belting it down and we could only be thankful that our musical tastes had us inside rather than in a muddy field at Reading. Kontinuum from Iceland naturally know well what extreme weather is like and it was nice that they had come over to give us a dose of their ‘Earth Blood Magic’ or so I at first thought. There were no less than five band members filling the stage and attention was drawn at first to the feather covered microphone stand of singer Birgir Thorgeirsson. It was odd and we wondered what sort of statement they were trying to make although someone pointed out that perhaps they had just slaughtered a puffin! As they strode off with an angular post rock sort of noise with sharp guitar tones and layers of guitar effects we pondered where everything was going. Again this really suffered vocally and it was down to the muscular music to win us over. Unfortunately it was around the second number that it struck me that musically they were pretty much playing by numbers and joining the dots. Although this was fast and furious at times it was really dry of any atmosphere garnering little more than polite toe-tapping by those watching. It left me pretty much numbed as songs seemingly went through the motions and left me completely unengaged. As much as I tried and indeed I watched the whole set, there was little I could have said about it after the event without having written notes as it was just unimpressionable leaving me with the feeling that every bloody university in mainland Europe probably has their own band playing in just such a style.

Zatokrev from Switzerland are thankfully the complete polar opposite. When they come on the sound is immense even in the toilet where I find myself. The flies lose the will to live and drop down the pan and walking back into the venue I immediately feel flattened by the dynamism unfolding. Drummer Frédéric Hug was particularly impressive and savage and this hugely needed wake-up call was just what I needed. I was doing a second take though and it is only now that I realise after double checking that one band member Frederyk Rotter had played a rather rotten trick as he also doubles up live duties for Crown. The stage lighting which had been predominantly deep red all weekend worked particularly well with stark white lighting occasionally beaming through and catching a band member as the quartet literally threw themselves and their instruments around. Most recent album ‘The Bat The Wheel And The Long Road To Nowhere’, is as mammoth a listen as the title suggests running at an epic length with really long songs. However there seemed to be much more of an immediacy and spontaneity about the band live. There were moments where they built things up with a stop start precision leaving me drawing breath at every pause. One song possibly ‘Feel The Fire Part 2’ started with massive crazed vocal yaps which certainly got through and bit in here. There was some monumental tribal drumming and things culminated with band members rolling around the floor as though possessed. I was absolutely gutted when they finished.

The part of the show that I was dreading was before me. I have tried and tried again to see and say positive things about Xerath but what they do (and they do it very well) just ain’t for me and I fail to get into them every time. Obviously I was in the minority here as many were bouncing around to their technical progressive songs like ‘Reform Part 3’ and ‘Machine Insurgency’ but when the most exciting thing one can think of to say about a bands set is ‘oh what happened to singer Richard Thomson’s hair he’s cut it all off’ you know you are on a hiding to nothing attempting to review. Outside, fresh air and wait for the main event!

So end of an era sadly, this was to be it! Altar Of Plagues have died doing what it loved, considering that with last (fantastic) album ‘Teethed Glory And Injury’ they had done everything they wanted to achieve and had drawn things to an inevitable conclusion. We may have been upset by this but is it not better to burn out brightly than fade away?  Having been into their tumultuous post-black metal, since first discovering the Irish band and having seen them in London as many opportunities that arose (including memorably with Wolves In The Throne Room here in 2008) this was not a set I had intended to miss, especially since being totally bowled over by that last album. Starting off with frenzied number from this ‘God Alone’ This was chasm falling, jaw dropping stuff and the sound was phenomenal as the trio literally powered through things. It was a heavy, hefty vortex of sound bathed in that ever present blood red light adding to the menacing and other-worldly dimensions of the music. Dave Condon and James Kelly took up opposing sides of the stage, vocals hollered angrily and at the back Johnny King thundered away.

Older friends were revisited as we were wrapped in ‘Earth As A Tomb.’ The deluge of noise was totally magnificent and at the other end of the scale the slower parts were completely lush and sparkling compared to the rugged powerful surges. The bleak end of world tones washed over with abject depressive finality but at least the band were going out in style. It was down to Mammal to finish things off and nail the coffin doors firmly shut ‘Neptune Is Dead’ was not only an ultimate statement but an explosive one that even saw band members leaping into the audience as the final passage of white noise washed over us. Nobody wanted it to end but end it has to and in a way that one thinks will be finite with no reformation ion the cards. Whilst we await to discover what comes next for the individual band members we are left with a lasting memory of one of those rare bands who did it all and left their mark as their name becomes set in the very dusts of time.

There was a third day of the Candlefest with Winterfylleth, Mael Mordha, Wodensthrone, Cnoch An Tursa, Falloch, Eastern Front and Cold In Berlin playing unfortunately for various reasons, the biggest being that TFL had closed all tubes in my area for engineering works meant I could not attend.

(Review and photos © Pete Woods)