Okay guys, this is going to be a long one. It’s mostly going to be a list of bands I saw at Brutal Assault last week, brief reviews of their sets, and assorted observations about the festival and the Czech Republic. If you’re not fully sure what grindcore is or how it’s different to death metal, you may want to skip this one.
Or better yet, keep reading! Every day is a school day!
If you want to skip ahead to the bits where I say nice things, the highlights for me were: Carcass, Dying Fetus, Gojira, Ihsahn, In Flames, and Meshuggah; and standout new discoveries were Alcest, Dr. Living Dead, Leprous, and War from a Harlot’s Mouth.
My good friend Conor and I settled on Brutal Assault as the festival we would attend this year, not just because of the lineup but because, based on our visit in 2010, it was the most friendly and safe festival I’d ever been at, and had a great selection of food, beer and merchandise.
We arrived at the impressive surroundings of Old Army Fortress Josefov, situated just outside the town of Jaromeř, on the Wednesday evening. The usual boring festival stuff happened – setting up the tent and the like – before we explored the festival grounds, had a few beers, and settled down to watch the last two bands of the festival’s opening night:
Testament: Good solid old-school thrash, as befits the band some cite as being the fifth member of the Big Four. As I’ve never really listened to them on record, I can’t judge them on that front, but the good riffs kept me and the rest of the crowd entertained.
Hentai Corporation: Fun, poppy -core from this Czech outfit; surprised me with a jazzy off-kilter keyboard solo, which I figured would be the most jangly keyboard solo of the festival… though given the genres on offer, that’s not such a hard competition.
Thursday began in disgusting form, as I awoke to murderous humidity in what could technically be called a three-man tent, though fitting another person between us might have been some variety of war crime. Having resolved to “See the first band every day, and no bitching out”, we struggled out of our tent, realised it was only about 9am, and headed off for the shade of one of the dining tents to get a nap before watching:
Abstract Essence, who, right on the heels of my musing about keyboards the night before, surprised me with a rather good (but not jangly) keyboard solo during one song, but left no other impression.
Proximity were okay but not exciting, and ran a good deal over time on their set delaying the appearance of
Coffins, a disappointing Japanese death metal outfit who at times sounded like .they might be playing some straightforward classic death metal, but were so let down by poor sound that is was hard to tell.
Dr. Living Dead had about ten minutes of their otherwise excellent set taken up by technical issues. They’re a fun Swedish act with a NY thrash/hardcore crossover vibe. The music was really good and the missing ten minutes were handled by genuine charm by the frontman. You’d almost forget they were wearing rubber skulls.
Novembers Doom were disappointing; what I’d heard online had been promising but live they were just another doom act, with a singer that couldn’t deliver on the typically overblown, faux-operatic doom metal vocal style.
Philm, Dave Lombardo’s new group, were really very good, playing tight and raw alt-metal. I feel like they’d be better suited to an indoor gig or club environment, but still very good.
Belphegor were exactly what you’d expect; bang-on theatrical, silly black metal. Enjoyable but forgettable.
DevilDriver were… fine. They gave a good show but it’s not my thing. The fans seemed to love it though. They mustn’t have realized that DevilDriver ‘is not metal, is discotheque.’ These are the words of Jerry, a large Czech truck driver who also opined that the band in question are ‘music for my fifteen-years daughter’ as we stood in the crowd waiting for
Dying Fetus who are nothing less than astonishing live. They were maybe not at 100% of their ferociously technical on-record ability, but they left you in no doubt that they can play, and play extremely well. First band that I pitted for – getting shoved around by giant Eastern Europeans to the strains of Your Treachery Will Die With You has a certain charm… until that hardcore dude with the baseball cap and the crazy look in his eyes starts leading with his elbows, because he’s just there to hurt people. I hope he got his ass kicked later. All in all, they gave a stunning set, playing a good mix of tracks from early and recent releases, but they seemed to play at a good deal under their allotted 45 minutes. As the crowd dispersed at the end of their set, I saw an old lady walking past me from deeper in the crowd. A bona-fide old lady, of at least sixty-five years old, was significantly deeper in the crowd for Dying Fetus than I was, and I was in the pit. Metal as all hell.
Ensiferum were cheap and cheerful; I get the appeal but I don’t agree. They can’t actually sing in harmony, which at least half of their songs require. Cheesy in the extreme.
Gojira began at sunset on the first day. Everything about this set was first-rate. Their music was every bit as tight and technical as on record, backed up by a great light show and the front man’s charm. If you haven’t gotten into this band, start immediately; there’s still time to catch up! The set was excellently chosen too – I’m never not going to be happy when someone plays The Heaviest Matter of the Universe. By the end of Gojira’s set, night had fully fallen and with it began a thunderstorm. We sprinted back to the campsite, got our ponchos (mine was a fetching lemon yellow number, advertising the release of Shrek Ever After), and returned to catch
Anthrax, who had also an impressive light show courtesy of the lightning (though the thunder was of course inaudible). Anthrax delivered classic thrash, exactly as advertised, though the frontman bafflingly and cringingly attributed the storm to Dimebag Darrell’s ghost, and I think at one point he said “Hello Czechoslovakia!” Can’t argue with the music though.
Fear Factory‘s set was spoiled by sound quality issues, a very poor vocal performance, and at one point they seemed to be out of sync with their backing tracks. Disappointing.
Entombed were straightforward old-school death metal, nothing fancy or unexpected happening but I’d recommend them.
Whitechapel pulled a pretty obnoxious bro move by testing the full power of their stage lights during Entombed’s set, half-blinding those of us on the stand overlooking the two stages. But a band that, in my opinion, could single-handedly justify the existence of deathcore as a genre, deserve a little bit of leeway. (And it’s deathcore, you’ve got to expect some obnoxious behaviour.) The set lived up to the hype – very tight, very heavy, very exciting music.
Marduk were another exactly-what-you-expect black metal outfit. Silly and theatrical, easily fulfilling their quota of tremolo picking and blast beats. Two songs was enough to satisfy me, as I realized it was almost 2.30am and I staggered off to the campsite to prepare for Friday’s onslaught.
Other things that happened on Thursday: someone parked a fire engine stage left and sprayed the hose into the sky, to make some cooling artificial rain for the crowd – this was much appreciated as it was roughly 36 degrees Celsius that day. There was also a guy going around the festival dressed in boots, an Edwardian-era men’s swimsuit, clown makeup, and a rainbow umbrella hat.
The old lady in the Dying Fetus crowd was still weirder though.
Friday it rained. It rained lots. In keeping with our agreement, we got up early to see
Antropofagus, another good but uninspiring death metal band. For the next few hours there were no bands that interested either of us, so we made a run to the shops for supplies and came back in time to watch the second half of a movie in the festival’s horror cinema: Black Sheep, a daft New Zealander horror flick with exactly the plot you suspect it has. Ridiculous, hackneyed, gory, very entertaining.
Alcest were next, a surprisingly dreamy post/black band from France. Lots of atmosphere and big walls of sound, as well as a charmingly shy frontman. Another band I think would work better in a club, but definitely on the list to check out.
Fields of the Nephilim were the only major disappointment of the festival. The singer was completely unable to deliver, and no amount of vocal effects could cover that fact. The sound took about 5 songs to sort out. The best part by far was an extended instrumental break during Dawnrazor, which besides the reasonably decent music itself, gave the audience a break from the singing. I had been very looking forward to this band, having had a bit of an interest in them in my late teens. Of the songs I remember from those days, they did play my second favourite (Moonchild) but didn’t play my favourite (For Her Light), but it’s probably just as well.
Meshuggah were incredibly tight and blisteringly technical. I must admit I’ve never gotten as into this band as I would like, but I do enjoy them. They’re pretty much the number one band for everyone else to rip off these days, and with a performance like this you can see why. ObZen is going on the shopping list, I promise!
In Flames were another top-class act. They’ve gotten a little more core-y than their melodic death metal roots, but they still deliver tight, melodic, technical and fun music. The frontman has great crowd interaction. They’re another band I don’t know as well as I should so I didn’t recognize a lot of their set, particularly the newer stuff, but they’re definitely a band worth seeing.
Carcass were every bit as good as I hoped they would be, and an unbeatable follow-up to Messhugah and In Flames to finish out the festival’s second day. Jeff Walker is a great frontman, they played absolutely note perfectly, and the sound was spot on. In a very real sense, I would not have been there if not for Carcass; discovering their album Symphonies of Sickness aged 15 or so taught me just how good extreme metal could be. When John Peel discovered this album, he played the opening track Reek of Putrefaction on his show every night for a month. I always preferred the second song, Exhume to Consume, though of course Carcass decided to end the whole set by playing both songs in the correct order, followed by Crepitating Bowel Erosion, except they only played that song’s intro before abruptly switching into Heartwork, the song that arguably invented the entire genre of melodic death metal. A perfectly chosen set, expertly delivered, that honestly left me lost for words for the next few hours.
Overkill had the unenviable task of following Carcass, but they were another good, charming old school thrash act (though this time from New Jersey rather than New York or the Southwest, for a change). Still speechless from Carcass, I caught a few songs of their set and headed for bed.
Saturday we had agreed that not only would we get up to see the first band of the day, but that we would get up to watch the first film in the horror cinema, the cult classic Heavy Metal. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s a lo-fi animated feature in several segments, spanning genres from noir sci-fi to heroic fantasy. It’s also decidedly in the exploitation film genre; every single one of the four female characters has scenes of gratuitous nudity. To compound matters, the dialogue track was in Czech and the festival staff couldn’t sync the English subtitles so they just turned them off, leaving me with a pretty good idea of what was happening in general but pretty confused about the specifics. All in all, it’s pretty entertaining; I decided afterwards that I liked it, but that I don’t necessarily approve. After the film we grabbed some breakfast and arrived at the stage in plenty of time to see
Gutalax. Silly grindcore is something of a weakness of mine, and it doesn’t come sillier than Gutalax. An exclusively poo-themed native Czech act, their fans were out in force despite the early start, many of them arriving wearing toilet seats and wielding stained toilet brushes. About half the crowd had brought rolls of toilet paper to the show and these were gleefully tossed back and forth across the audience. The band themselves were wearing brown-stained overalls and hazmat masks. The music itself is stupid but catchy grindcore, and while I couldn’t understand a word of the crowd banter (much less the actual lyrics) the rest of the fans seemed to love it. They were far too fun for me to not look them up.
War from a Harlot’s Mouth, the second-longest band name at the festival, were a surprisingly good German deathcore outfit, and definitely one to be looked up in future, whereas the longest (and silliest) name
We Butter the Bread with Butter played next. Also Germans, they weren’t even half as good as their predecessors, giving us barely competent heavy bits compromised by terrible, hackneyed melodic -core and electronic sections. One to avoid.
Sylosis (who I’ve reviewed before) were heavier in general than their big single Empyreal would suggest. Despite claiming extreme fatigue from travelling all night, they gave a perfect performance. A guy in the pit did try to kick my knees in but that can’t be blamed on the band.
Rotten Sound are maybe the best current grindcore act I know, excepting maybe the granddaddies of the genre Napalm Death, or possibly Leng Tch’e. Every track they played was solid, and the full breadth of what grindcore can do was on show. They claimed this performance as their twentieth anniversary celebration. Curiously, though I enjoyed them during the show, it was a bit forgettable once the show was over.
Primordial, the only Irish act on the schedule, and shamefully one I knew almost nothing about before this festival. They play an awesomely black, faintly folky style of metal. Each song was about nine minutes long, meaning they only fit three songs into the set, but if all of their music was as inspiring as Bloodied Yet Unbowed, I would probably have burst in an outpouring of ethnic pride and manly motivation.
…one who did not dare to be wrong/ did not dare to be right
Leprous started off an 90 minute long set (the longest of the festival) with their own brand of catchy, melodic metal, straying into post-rock territory at times. They’re all technically gifted musicians and the singer has a big powerful pop voice – another band that bares further investigating. Of course the main act of the show, former Emperor frontman
Ihsahn joined them about 30 minutes into their set, delivering a selection of songs from his solo career heavily skewed towards third album After. The saxophone solos of Frozen Lakes of Mars, in the absence of any actual sax player, were instead sung by Leprous’s singer, in one of the more impressive displays of musicianship I saw at the festival. The whole performance was one of the tightest I saw, all the more impressive given that Leprous were on stage for almost an hour and a half.
Taking a break to rest our minds, we took in Shaun of the Dead, a film with near endless rewatch value.
Behemoth, though I don’t really know their output very well, impressed me with just a touch of death to spice up awesome black metal. Their last song ended with a glitter cannon fired over the heads of the crowd – very kvlt.
Opeth were a band I always suspected would be much more impressive in a club or gig environment than in a festival. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Their set at Brutal Assault was as good as I’ve ever seen them. They played a lot of material off Heritage (at least, I don’t have Heritage and I didn’t recognize a lot of the material) but every bit of it was Opeth’s trademark prog sound. An acoustic version of Demon of the Fall was a fun surprise, other parts were just as heavy as any other band at the festival, and they ended their set with the mind-blowingly good Blackwater Park. It was Carcass all over again, perhaps even stronger this time because I had half-expected to be disappointed.
Madball, a pretty cool NY hardcore act, seemed to give a good performance, but unfortunately I only caught about twenty minutes of it while waiting to see
Carpathian Forest who easily take the title of the silliest, most theatrical black metal from the several silly, theatrical black metal bands we saw. The music was black, the singer was drunk, at one point a scantily-clad assistant came out to give the singer an outrageous prop for… some reason, there were spikes and studded leather and it was all terrific fun, and a great band to close the festival on.
I say “close the festival” like we didn’t actually go to bed at 6am, instead of when Carpathian Forest finished up at 2am, but that’s a different story altogether.
After the Festival
Not strictly related to the festival, but every day we were in Prague a different band was playing on Wensceslas Square outside our hostel: the first day was a percussion ensemble, the second a folky brass band, and the last day was a reggae/ska band. On the Old Town Square we saw a Celtic music trio (two bagpipers and a drummer) who were pretty good and dressed in period costume, and the famous Charles Bridge has a resident dixieland jazz band: in the same few days I both went to a metal festival and saw a live washboard solo.
And I’m done. I warned you it’d be a long one. In closing I just want to repeat how friendly the whole atmosphere was; by far the safest and most fun festival I’ve been at. Put it on your calendar for next year folks!