After a quick check of the merch stand I was in familiar territory … the pit at the Underworld. I’ve taken to looking at merch stands nowadays for bizarre items. A recent one was Haken coffee, which I resisted at £10 for a small bag, and matching in strangeness the Grimsby Town FC air freshener. “The smell of defeat” was my then 9 year old daughter’s instant observation on this last one. There was nothing unusual on display tonight other than highly priced products. More on merch stand activity later on.

I had a bad vibe about the attendance at this one tonight. With Vader, Sonic Syndicate and Uneven Structure all playing at this venue on the preceding and following nights, and it being Easter Sunday with associated transport issues and non-London based students being out of town, I wondered how popular this would be. My record low happened a few years ago down the road at a Serpentia concert, which started with two spectators, comprising myself and the girlfriend of the support band’s lead singer. I counted 50 or so people at the start tonight, rising to about 100 later on so I’m glad that hurdle was overcome.

My friend Erik from the Netherlands speaks highly of Poem from Greece. I can’t say that I’ve really connected to them in my short acquaintance. I did by way of preparation listen to a couple of songs but I found them a bit dreary, so I was hoping that their music might explode like a blossoming flower and their live performance would convey better to me what they are about. Well, Poem surprised me. They were much heavier than I expected. The style varied between rampant melodic heaviness and dark moody passages. The vocalist did a great line in facial gymnastics but more pertinently his vocal range was amazing. His clean voice had vulnerability, which is always handy for a prog band, he could growl and he had a haunting Middle Eastern voice when he wanted. But this was a team effort from what I quickly discovered is a musically creative band. The aggressive-looking bassist packed a punch, supporting the drums beats and even tribal rhythm on “Weakness”, while the lead guitarist provided a master-class of styles including classic metal, Mediterranean and North African rhythms. But this was heavy, energetic and always with a dark backdrop. Short headbanging sessions were on prescription too. Not having heard much of Poem before, initially I found them hard to settle to. I got that there were songs from the band’s album “Skein Syndrome” but what I came to perceive in my intrigued mind were not songs but passages. “Giant” featured progressive rock n roll, good melodies, a driving force, slow clapping, feeling-driven vocals and another headbanging workout. The band was well drilled and had masses of personality, delivering all this between the notional songs with humour and friendliness. Musically I particularly liked the dark atmospheres and moody sections, but so too I liked the catchy melodies, and the Mediterranean-style, twisting rhythms. I don’t know what all the songs were nor indeed what any of them was about but the atmospheres and variety were irresistible. The set ended with “Remission of Breath”, a great choice as a climax to the show. At first it was as if Opeth met the Mediterranean. As ever the musical tableau transformed, and was constantly in forward gear. Now we had a shadowy dark passage. I felt a hypnotising, heavy post metal type of energy. We heard the haunting voice, then as crunchy heaviness returned, the singer was in the crowd demonstrating his impressive credentials for the world headbanging championships. Poem’s music was intriguing and creative. I felt privileged to see such great musicians at work.

Poem also won the PR award for the evening. The Underworld did its bit by opening the doors from 7pm, giving the bands the time and opportunity to hang around the merch stand and meet the arriving spectators. Poem did this, and I can reveal that the ferocious-looking bass player Stratos was the nicest person you would wish to meet. So too were his band mates all lovely people. By contrast, it was disappointing that no band member from tonight’s headliners was around. I thought that was a poor effort on their part.

Persefone were tonight’s main attraction. I expected much and braced myself for a whirlwind. I have trouble remembering Persefone’s track titles for this reason. Their albums, like their live shows, are an intense experience. It’s like being swept along on a massive wave of progressive death metal. Or that’s what I was hoping for from this band which I’d seen twice previously. I am conscious that Persefone’s songs have a pattern – the mystical climb up the mountain, the storm and turbulence and the clean vocal sections – and I was a bit concerned that the notorious sound quality of the Underworld would drown the experience as I have seen in the past with other bands. My expectation was material from their latest album “Aathma”, which I must confess to routinely misreading as “Asthma”. Indeed, true to expectation I recognised the opening to “Aathma” to begin with. Once that formality was out of the way, it was down to bloody heavy business. There was nothing wheezy about this. The vocalist, a bearded thin man with a dodgy barnet, or probably that’s me being old-fashioned, jumped around like a cat on hot bricks and screamed manically. The vigorous prog death metal had everyone in a frenzy. The heavy, heavy energy bounced off the walls of co-ordinated noise. I and my fellow spectators wallowed in the technicality. It flowed. The hirsute angry man continued to scream. I did recognise “The Great Reality” off the “Spiritual Migration” album. Its clean vocals, supplied by the keyboard player, were drowned out. It’s difficult to be spiritual when there’s so much aggression and thunder. Instead twisting technicality met headbanging heights. Here and there, exotic moments would make an appearance, and this happened with a couple of numbers from the “Shin-ken” album. Even with the complexity and concentration needed, I felt that Persefone were just going through the motions, but they did respond to my subliminal concern with a much called for dark and shadowy keyboard passage. The drums built up the scene again. It was like a tornado subsiding and returning. We enjoyed guitar virtuosity as the band hit the majestic heights of “Spiritual Migration”. The drums were now roaring. We were faced with a sheer wall of sound. This prog death maelstrom stuff isn’t easy to grasp, but it’s impossible not to wonder at this band’s co-ordination. The guitarists played expressively. The piano sounded like falling drops of rain. Finally there was a mystical air. After “Purity” came “Cosmic Walkers”. But it had now gone dead out there. Mercifully, the mood changed and we were back to prog death but this time with the majestic “Living Waves”. Persefone now managed to combine its mystical voices and the hypnotic chorus line with Mr Angry’s deathcore outpourings. This catchy song with its build-up of power and intensity was for me the highlight of this set. After that it went downhill. Yes, depth and darkness were there but the clean vocalist was fighting a losing battle trying to reinvigorate the cerebral side of things as the violent power of the instrumentals and Mr Angry’s roars were simply overpowering. A healthy dose of moshing started up. The set ended with more technical heaviness, headbanging, bucket-loads of energy and more fuel for the moshers. The death/thrash mood made the clean vocal incidental to the furious onslaught. But the power and authority could not be denied. This was not an Easter celebration. This was a Persefone celebration.

If I were to draw a graph of Persefone’s set, there were two peaks: at “Spiritual Migration” and “Living Waves”. The build-up to “Spiritual Migration” was electrifying, but much as I appreciated the technical skill and co-ordination, I found the atmosphere became flat and uninspiring between and after these two big numbers. Although I confess to a slight disappointment with Persefone’s performance, I did enjoy it, but for me Poem were the more interesting band tonight.

Andrew Doherty