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Thursday 21 September 2023

A View From Beyond The Void: Cosmic Void Festival Day 2 (Live Review By Alyn Hunter & Natalie King)

Cosmic Void Festival Day 2, Camden, Saturday 16.09.23

The festival layout for the remainder of the weekend was done in keeping with last year, although with the notable addition of utilising the Black Heart for the bulk of the UK acts, which after seeing how quiet the venue was during the day last year, was a gesture of mutual benefit to both the attendees of the festival who would get better value for money, or alternatives to the Underworld if it ended up particularly packed, and the performing UK contingent fortunate enough to be performing at a prestigious black metal event, not to mention the Black Heart itself which felt busier now that it had some live activity scheduled befitting the masses of fans in the vicinity. A quick footnote for us is that we applaud this support of the domestic scene in principle as a platform for our own talent, however for our own endeavours in seeing as much of the bands we hadn't seen before, we ended up spending the bulk of our time within the larger two venues.

We arrived ahead of the first Electric Ballroom band (another slight faux pas on our side for not getting in earlier for The Suns Journey... & Infernal Angels, but it is what it is), and perhaps one of our only real complaints with the organisation of the weekend reared its head with the opening of the venue doors and the start of Nordjevel's set happening at the same time. The resultant effect was that a diverging queue happened outside the Ballroom in two directions. Complete mis-management by the security meant that the queue heading towards Camden station were told after having waited for a good while that they were in fact in the wrong queue, and had to queue for an additional length of time in the opposite direction. 

Naturally, the simple solution would've been to have opened the doors prior to the first band starting with the benefit that the band wouldn't be initially playing to an empty room, but perhaps there were reasons unbeknownst to us as to why that couldn't happen. This same issue apparently also affected the first band performing at the Underworld beforehand, but seemed more pronounced here where a number just decided to miss either some, or all of Nordjevel rather than engage in that favourite of British pastimes.

Either way, when we did get in about 15 minutes through their set, Nordjevel (9) had already opened with fury. Breakneck and often impossible-feeling drumming courtesy of the absolute monolith that is Nils 'Dominator' Fjellstrom being a predictably large draw for many, Nordjevel deliver a particularly nasty sounding 2nd wave of Norwegian black metal replete with corpsepaint, spiked gauntlets that demand their own health and safety course, and enough savagery in their riffs to send a hoard of bears bailing for the hills. 

It's sometimes a difficult one to remember but Nordjevel are still a band in relative infancy having only formed in 2015, but the strength of their rapidly growing catalogue of releases on show here was clearly illustrative of the collective experience of the members who are all seasoned in their craft. They categorically bludgeoned the ballroom, and damn, we wished we caught that first 15minutes too, but as a slight consolation they did seem to get a bit of a longer set as a result.

Over to the Underworld next to catch some of Austrians Karg (8), who by contrast deliver polished, post black metal with plenty of ambience. As is often a trope of the modern take on the sub-genre, they take some hardcore elements in the vocal delivery and nuances, and oftentimes sound similar to last year's performers and compatriots Ellende which is by no means a bad thing. In something that will become a common theme throughout this review, we were mostly new to Karg, but nevertheless they delivered a very professional, tight and assured showing and no doubt secured a number of new fans, us included - all things considered quite relaxing after the consummate prior face-melting.

...and this is where things got surprising. Almost weirdly so, and Cosmic Void cannot be found at fault for this as once again, they should be praised for their ability to attract big names within the genre over to our shores as the majority of the time, it works out. It's a key component to their success. So when Midnight Odyssey (0) were announced having been previously billed as a "secret act", there was much fanfare predominantly from the comments sections about how this was going to be something truly special, particularly as this was a worldwide debut show from an artist held in high regard for their influence and prolific output as a one-man outfit with several revered releases under his belt within his ambient black metal staple. 

Noteworthy enough to be picked up to add elements to the most recent Cattle Decapitation records. There's a hefty element of risk that perhaps some may have overlooked in that statement though, and that's the fact that there's not a tried and tested performance to back up the booking, and on further investigation doesn't seem to have been the case historically, which in practice made this even more of a punt. In actuality though, this turned out to be probably the most polarising performance we've witnessed in any genre, from any show, ever, and unfortunately for us, in our collective experiences of having seen many different acts over the decades between us, we sat on the negative side of that spectrum, and we'll try very hard to be as objective as possible in delivery here and give an accurate account of both our feelings and interpretation, whether it is a shared one or otherwise...

So, with that preamble out of the way, Midnight Odyssey, might well have been one of the worst performances from a band we have ever seen. Ever. Underprepared, messy, horrible/incomprehensible sound, out of time (we think? - the drum machine was so buried and muffled it's hard to tell amongst the soupy blown out mess)... words fail in explaining quite how bad this was without sounding like an attempt at setting some kind of new benchmark in hyperbole. What we witnessed for the 20 rueful minutes that we hung about for (which for candour was far too long), was an excessively long and redundant introduction, followed by an overtly loud cacophony that was devoid of any musical merit, and even in the absence of said merit, also lacking any stage-show or theatrics of note unless you count the keyboardist lurching back and fore out of time with the aforementioned completely buried drum-machine. 

 When within the first 5 minutes of the eventual opening salvo the visible concensus of a crowd is of 'what the fuck is this?', you begin to question whether it is either the material, the performance, or the sound is at fault. Having not been familiar with the material and not noticing any problems with Nordjevels sound, we felt it would be reasonable to see this as a performance issue. Within the first 30 seconds of the racket ensuing, from our view at the back of the room rows of people were either laughing and leaving, or giving a much more expletive-laden vocalisation of their opinion, and still leaving. 

To us, this was an opportunity wasted for a far more prepared band getting to perform to a packed Ballroom (as all "main-stage" sets did not clash with anything else), a show of faith from the organisers that had not even come close to being repaid, and by comparison, the buskers outside felt like stadium headliners. Whether this improved at all further into the set was a moot point for us as the damage had already been done and the incentive to stay entirely sapped, and ultimately first impressions count. This was truly dire, and the sole upside was that this made choosing when to get food in an otherwise stacked day a no-brainer.

Also peculiar and in hindsight somewhat incredulous is that Dis Pater, mastermind behind the project would be speaking at a seminar of sorts at the Black Heart the next day as an authoritative figure in Black Metal. Perhaps this served as proof that Black Metal does have a habit of placing individuals on a plinth before they are proven within one of the most important of environments - the live setting. 

All this served to prove in principle was that either Dis Pater is a legend at polishing in a forgiving studio environment, or royally took the piss by not taking the opportunity seriously enough to prepare sufficiently for what was by all accounts a keenly anticipated worldwide debut, an opportunity craved by many a far more rehearsed and deserving act. However you choose to slice that cake, the credibility of that additional appearance felt questionable at best based on what we saw, not that many of the swathes of online fans will know until they complete some of their other booked dates or the recording of the set (as there was a film camera set up for this) is released.

Now, what is worth adding as an addendum is that we mentioned that this was a polarising performance, and to make a point that this isn't us using this platform as a means of disparaging an artist from attempting to deliver their craft, but there comes a time when you have to call a spade a spade, particularly in order to have any credibility in the medium of a review. There were definitely some who were loving it and have said as much afterwards, although we cannot fathom why outside of being just big fans of the music on record, and treating this as the musical equivalent of a Mum pinning up their child's first drawing on the fridge, heralding the second coming of Claude Monet. 

As we were leaving, plenty of people were still saying how chronically awful they were, and even after we got food, those comments continued as we walked back past the Ballroom all the way to the next band in the Underworld which was quickly filling up long before it normally would've. In some ways, it does go to show the richness in diversity within the genre, but to these ears, we just think that some might need to set their bars higher as to what constitutes a good performance, especially amongst a weekend where no doubt every act on the bill delivered something far superior, and maybe some acts should just be confined to the mystique of the isolated bedroom from whence they came.

With a line drawn under that, we got in early to see the enigmatic Slagmaur (8) and the Underworld venue room was brimming. Wish.com-esque halloween costumes in tow with the gain up to 22 and overly distorted fizzy guitar tones, Slagmaur emit a sludgy, horror themed black metal. Specifically, the drummer had an elaborate goat mask, the guitarist stage right had a depraved butcher outfit, stage left was adorned with a pigs head, and the vocalist the skull of the avian variety. Quite unique in a way, but theatrically engaging in a disturb-the-shite-out-of-you fashion and hypnotic from the riffs front. Slagmaur clearly had a number of very enthused fans who were waxing lyrical both before and after the performance, and whilst one of us left a little unsure on the thematic front, it was agreed that this was a solid UK debut from the Norweigans.

Keeping things Norway, the Ballroom next saw veterans Urgehal (9) take to the stage in a 'memorial ritual' for former guitarist/vocalist Trondr Nefas. This was vintage, nasty Norweigan black metal done the old school way with a real bite and venom to their performance, but with a meaty PA behind them this took their buzz-saw attack to a level their stature demanded. The Ballroom crowd seemed happy that this was a return to business as usual, and heads did not stop moving as Urgehal levelled the venue with their barrage. An absolutely stunning and relentless performance replete with all the blastbeats, chaos and Satan that you could possibly want from an act that have long needed a UK show.

Back to the Underworld we trudged, ears suitably molested for comparatively soothing atmospheric and depressive Thy Light (9). The much revered Brazilians were touted as one of the scalps of the festival and were making their long awaited UK debut at Cosmic Void. A brooding atmosphere was laid down through maudlin and suffocating riff after riff, weaving a complex web of emotion from riveting to sombre with thoughtful lead lines and melodies. A special showing that justified their invitation particularly with another instance of a packed venue, and no surprise to see a ton of their merch shifted and on display the next day. Honestly wouldn't be surprised to see these invited back, and hopefully for a full UK tour at some point, and a little criminal of us not having listened to more of their material prior, an issue that will no doubt quickly be rectified.

No rest for the wicked, we headed back over to the Ballroom for the big Swedish name of the day, Naglfar (10). It has been 17 years since they last performed in the UK, and this was about as overdue a show as it could be from the Scandinavian melodic black metal heavyweights. The room took some time to fill, presumably with many needing to deal with hunger or recovering emotionally from Thy Light, but fill quickly it did and stayed very much that way until they ended on the title track from the album Harvest

Naglfar take an approach of performing a style of black metal that takes from other genres that their compatriots are more famous for, such as melodeath, whilst still retaining that blackened vein. Melodeath rarely translates poorly live, and this was no exception, just with less emphasis on noodling guitar lines and a fair smattering more venom behind their output. Reaching mostly into material from the Harvest record and their most recent album Cerecloth, this was one of our most anticipated sets of the weekend and an assured account of themselves was provided with vocalist Kristoffer Olivius looking particularly unhinged throughout his manic delivery, creeping over the crowd like a possessed shadow Let it not be that long until they return as this was positively blistering.

We made our way slowly through our elation back to the Underworld for Ancient, which may have been a bit of a mistake as by the time we arrived it was jam packed and meant that any sound we were getting was that awkward mixture of part live sound being funnelled through a few hundred bodies and a doorway, and the overhead speakers churning out the same but without the bass. Between that and the now overwhelming heat of the venue, we elected to make use of the additional venue provided and go and catch some of The Infernal Sea (8) instead. A bit of a shame given Ancient's history, reputation and genre significance, but it wouldn't have been fair to try and pen words on a performance where we couldn't give a fair account either visually or audially. 

Having performed under The Infernal Sea recently, I knew very much what we were in for, and true to form - they produced a spellbinding display of absolutely furious and hate-fueled intensity. Our only misgiving was that if they played The Bearer, we missed it, and The Black Heart clearly struggled at times keeping the bass under control, but what we did see was an intimate crowd going ape for a band that are ticking all the right boxes continuously and pushing their own envelope with every step. Keep an ear to the ground for that upcoming record too, going by new material, it's going to be a belter.

The final performance of the day would be Darkspace (5), another eclectic band with a reputation to be respected amonst the more dark/ambient/industrial sub-genres - similar to Mysticum from last year, but this felt like a show where there in principle wasn't much wrong with them, but not much right either? Fairly flat and soulless to our ears, which might well be the vibe they wanted, but not really justifying their headliner billing with a performance that had much in common with someone turning their record player on. 

They stood stoic, stationary in low lighting for the bulk of their audial assault that we saw, and there just wasn't much that really made you think that this was a show of any special note. Their suffocating sound didn't do an awful lot to persuade us to stay any longer than half their scheduled set-length, not least after having seen the excellent two preceding acts in the Ballroom and that very well is likely down to individual tastes as it was certainly busy, but this just wasn't our jam, and became an excuse to head off to the Black Heart for a quick beverage before resting the legs ahead of the final day.

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