Decibel Tour: Behemoth, Watain, The Devil’s Blood, In Solitude
Saturday, May 12
Better than: The Highlights Tour and the Men’s Health Tour combined.
On the night before Mother’s Day, the Swedish metal band Watain hauled the skinned skulls of four slaughtered oxen, on pikes, on to the stage at Irving Plaza. The occasion was the final stop of the Decibel Tour, which put Watain on a bill with In Solitude, also from Sweden, The Devil’s Blood, from the Netherlands, and Behemoth, from Poland, whose frontman Nergal was playing some of his first shows after recovering from leukemia. Though all of the bands play what could loosely be called “heavy metal,” the bond between them isn’t sonic so much as spiritual—all of them profess some sort of loyalty to forces that are decidedly infernal. As Nergal put it in a recent interview promoting the shows, “This tour is not just about metal. There’s going to be a really evil and negative energy that I’m dying to taste, to explore, to embrace on this tour.”
Of the four bands on the bill, Watain and Behemoth are the most notoriously pious in their devotion to unholiness. In my favorite Watain story, a friend who is a local show promoter lamented to me about his inability to put on a “real” Watain show in the U.S.—”You know, one where they do the sacrifice”—and for their performance last year at Santos Party House, they filled the stage with flaming tridents and rotting pig carcasses, the stench from which made the room smell like an enormous Port-O-Lav. By those standards, their stage setup on this tour was mild—just those skulls on pikes, no flesh, no “sacrifice.” The tradeoff, though, was a taut, blistering and, frankly, astonishing set, full of songs that grunted and thrashed before opening up into long, expansive sections that were as broad and imposing as a pair of black wings. The chilling “Malefeitor” from 2010’s still-underrated Lawless Darkness felt like some sick cult’s minor-key doxology and “Reaping Death,” from the same record, hammered and hammered and hammered, pausing briefly for a lurching breakdown that heaved like a viking ship tossed by a hurricane. Frontman Erik Danielsson—face buried under layers of ghoulish corpsepaint and wearing, if rumor is to be believed, the same unwashed outfit he’d worn since the band’s first show—draped himself over the microphone, occasionally extending his arms as if to lead his congregation in song. His delivery was part trache-patient, part perverse preacher, announcing line after line in a hollowed-out rasp. Blackened though they may be, their best songs abide by time-tested hard rock rules—it’s not a worthwhile song if the chorus can’t be hollered by a crowd. And so the call of “Total!” was answered by the response: “FUNERAL!” and “Sworn! To the Dark!” became the menacing mantra of an unholy People’s Microphone.
But if Watain brought blunt force, Behemoth brought showmanship. Their set began with drummer Zbigniew Promiński making an inverted cross with his drumsticks while the rest of the band sauntered slowly onstage. To see Nergal live is to marvel at how, just months ago, he was deathly ill. He’s the consummate metal showman, striking a severe profile, his face ash-grey with black smeared generously around his eyes, a grim take on the Black Swan. He stalked the stage restlessly, swinging his guitar up and down like he was hacking limbs off with an axe. If Waitain’s music felt like the arias in some black metal opera, Behemoth’s was like jamming your finger into an exposed electrical outlet, pulling it out, then jamming it back in again. Chords came in tight, condensed clusters, percussion firing like a dropped machine gun. “Slaves Shall Serve” went up like bottle rockets in a sealed tin can, a maelstrom of pummeling, split-second riffs, Nergal’s animalistic growl rampaging over top of them. “At the Left Hand ov God,” which opened with a flutter of mariachi-like acoustic guitar, corkscrewed dizzily, arrhythmatic fast parts gradually ceding ground to fierce, snarling slow parts. “It feels good to be alive!” Nergal howled—almost happily—before the feral, thrashy “Conquer All.” In an evening devoted to praising death, it was a welcome contrarian sentiment.
In such company, In Solitude and The Devil’s Blood were destined to seem like the odd bands out. Both favor melody over menace, pulling liberally from both primitive ’70s hard rock and, just a bit, from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, for songs that made ample room for doomy melodies and healthy fretboard workouts. In Solitude frontman Henrik Helenius has a big, booming voice, and he poured it into choruses that seemed to contain both malice and regret. He was a frontman of the old school—whipping his hair and his body liberally and cheerily goading the crowd—but Devil’s Blood frontwoman F. The Mouth of Satan (Yes, really) was more remote and, consequently, more chilling. Her voice imagined Grace Slick leading worship in the Temple of Doom, but her body remained stock still, save only for the occasional, eerie, raising of her arms. It was as if she was casting some secret spell on the entire room, the effects of which we wouldn’t learn until days later.
Critical bias: As a Bible College graduate turned hardened atheist, I’m apparently still looking for ways to get back at my old youth pastors.
Overheard: “Ugh. I want to hang myself. It’s so melodic.”
Random notebook dump: Wait, is that girl wearing black leather bat’s wings?