Blow Up vol. 2 is the second annual celebration of slow and gloomy music organized by Blow Up That Gramophone. On trying to find out some background information to share about the background of this festival, we hit a few road blocks, as BUtG’s website and Facebook page don’t actually say anywhere what exactly they are – in theory they could be a booking agency, a label (unlikely), a production company – we’re not really certain. Either way, they organized a small festival last year at around the same time, and evidently it was successful enough to warrant a second round in 2016. On this occasion, the festival took place in a lesser-known location in Helsinki from October 14-15th, 2016.
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Once again, Blow Up was held at Kulttuuritehdas Korjaamo in Helsinki. It was an interesting location as the main stage was, in fact, inside a tram museum. On top of this, the location had a movie theater in which a film called Titicut Follies was scheduled to play accompanied by a live music performance by Veli-Matti O. “Läjä” Äijälä and Markku Leinonen. Sadly, due to unfortunate circumstances, they were unable to perform and the movie was shown on its own for free. I decided to not get into that as we’re not in the business of making movie reviews, so I went directly to the museum to see the bands themselves.
The first band, AU-Dessus, was founded in Lithuania quite recently in 2014, and so I’d never heard of them before this festival. Their sound can be described as black metal or post-black metal – a fitting opening act for a night such as this. They only have one EP from which to draw material, so we got to enjoy their full discography. Their name is French and roughly translates to “above”, which is indicative of their dislike for social norms and cliches. And so, four black-hooded figures appeared and as the intense sludge began, I thought to myself, ”You fancy yourselves the thinking man’s black metal? I’ll bite, show me what you’ve got.” The sound was intensely fuzzy and mostly low-end with some notable dissonance going on, but it wasn’t as though one couldn’t make out the melodies. The crowd stood perfectly still as per Finnish custom – little did I know AU-Dessus would later turn out to be one of the most energetic acts of the festival. At the time, however, I mostly nodded subtly and focused on the strange triangle shaped emblem on the singer’s mic stand. It had a crescent moon protruding from it, which unintentionally looked like a dolphin from my angle – perhaps that wasn’t quite the emblem for which the band was aiming. That being said, it was well above average as far as black metal live shows go. I recommend checking out their eponymous EP.
Following that was a much more peculiar act. There were notes all around the venue recommending the attendees wear earplugs, especially during Bastard Noise. On stage there was nothing more than one obviously homemade soundboard. A balding American gentleman in his casual-wear began the show stating that, ”Jazz is music, metal is music, noise is music,” and began twisting the knobs on his apparatuses. What ensued was, without a doubt, as promised: noise. The atonal and amelodic machine torture ranged from quiet to loud as well as low to high. It was at times painful and grating akin to having a dentist drill up in your eardrum. I felt incredibly bad for those poor souls who did not heed the warnings and left their earplugs at home. A good portion of the show, however, was fairly subdued and quiet. It was at these times that my mind raced. I started to focus on everything else. The smell of the fellow standing next to me. It was actually very interesting, I swear I could feel the moisture coming off his armpits, like a cloud of thick smoke. To my right I felt the cold emanating from the white pillars of brick. The minuscule bumps on said construct looked like a whole universe with infinite possibilities for unseen tiny flicks of dust floating in the air. I began to feel conscious of the follicles on my socks. This so called music had allowed me to rise to a higher awareness of my surroundings. Sadly this feeling only lasted up until the soundscape moved back up to tortuously loud. I still don’t know whether or not this can be called music but I had an experience with it nonetheless.
A bit later, back on Earth, the Finnish band Atomikylä began to play. This one more closely resembled a progressive or psychedelic jam band, but with a doom metal skin. As another newer band, they only have a limited pool to draw from, but considering their genre, it seems doubtful the audience is even aware of which song is being played. The sound was actually very clear at this point – or as clear as they wanted it to be. The setup was admittedly fuzz-friendly as the guitars were amplified by Marshall and Orange amps. The dark psychedelics took me to a much better place as the daring rhythms ensnared us. It’s always refreshing to hear clear and powerful basslines in this day and age. Their sound didn’t rely on mere nostalgia though. They had interesting and innovative hooks all around; for instance they’d tune strings up and down to create an unsettling, dissonant, and strange sound. This was a delightful opposite to Bastard Noise in execution with one key factor in common: they both made excellent use of dynamics. At times, Atomikylä went slow and then built up to something faster, or sometimes just ended in a nice, smooth place of pure serenity.
Before the Berlin/London-based (you tell me how that works) Lucifer took the stage, we were treated to the best intro tape of all time: the theme to Rosemary’s Baby. The haunting lullaby set an absolutely perfect mood for some oldschool doom metal. Fronted by arguably the definition of beauty, Johanna Sadonis, and backed by former Angel Witch drummer, Andrew Prestidge, as well as ex-Cathedral guitarist Gaz Jennings, this band’s fast rise to fame should come as no surprise. Their big YouTube hit, “Izrael”, electrified the previously very passive crowd up to very clear headnods and even some light arm movements. The bands were clearly not to blame for this lack of energy, it was just a very stoic sort of people. Lucifer themselves were full of pep. Sadonis moved around like Ozzy Osborne in his prime, but sang loudly and precisely. On stage she truly knew she was the queen and we were but her loyal followers. The one big downside to music that is so dedicated to replicating the past is that every now and then, one had to take a few seconds to guess whether they were playing a Black Sabbath cover or an original song. Everything was, of course, original (even if only in the strictest definition of the word) and for the most part it was a well put together set that got us all genuinely pumped. I’ll be sure to check them out again should they return to Helsinki.
The act to which I was most looking forward was Oranssi Pazuzu. I’d seen them once before at Tuska Open Air and their new album, Värähtelijä, had won them a lot of acclaim from critics, not to mention myself. The smell of excitement lay thick in the air as the first notes began to sound. No introduction needed – what ensued was just a powerful, trippy, gloomy jam. The stage lights went absolutely mental, flickering and changing color as rapidly as in any rave, but somehow corresponding to the music, which itself hardly ever escalated beyond a walking pace, so to speak. Even the mic stand had an LED light on it that changed colors accordingly. This music was obviously meant for a club environment, since the lighting was such an essential component. There were no bits of banter between songs either; they let the feel of the music itself guide us through the show. I can respect that. Even the very last song ended just like The Sopranos – cut to black, show’s over folks. No “Thank you, be sure to tip your waitresses.” The song ended and everyone just knew to clear out. It was an interesting and admittedly anti-climactic ending to a strange night indeed. One could only wonder what madness lay in wait for us on Saturday.
Due to my usual hectic schedule, I only managed to catch a brief glimpse of the first act, which was a collaboration between Albinö Rhino and Morbid Evils. Both bands can be described as old school stoner doom metal. If you like over-10-minute songs that sound like deliberate dissections of Black Sabbath songs, I recommend checking them both out. Morbid Evils, however, only if you don’t find death metal vocals abrasive.
A short time afterward, an ominous and dire sound filled the hall. Skepticism may well be the most depressing band in a nation that has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Apart from the drummer, the band seemed to be dressed for a funeral. Vocalist Matti Tilaeus in particular looked to be wearing a scuffed up tux, as if he was supposed to get married that day but something had gone horribly wrong. The synth player was hunched over in the corner playing what looked like a classic electric piano with a mirror mounted on it for no clearly discernible reason – likely just to see the cues from his bandmates. The slow, brooding sound was almost suspiciously heavy and low-end considering they had no bass player. They managed this by having the guitar mostly play slow power chords with very few distinct melodies. In the midst of this wall of sound, the only thing that really registered from Tilaeus’ vocals was his extremely Finnish pronunciation. His low growls, however, did fit the sound perfectly and he carried himself very convincingly as a man who’d lost everything. The whole set felt bad to watch… in a good way.
The second day seemed to have filled the hall to the brim. This became ever more apparent by the time Lord Vicar took the stage. They obviously had a great following of largely young women, as I overheard quite a few conversations wherein the ladies were discussing looking forward to seeing them. Most of them mispronounced the name, but perhaps they were privy to some inside information on it that I just wasn’t. Lord Vicar was another example of the diet Black Sabbath discipline of doom metal. They had a clear sound and performed adequately to a crowd that was very much into them. I generally like Lord Vicar but admittedly, when put together with this many doom metal bands, they didn’t bring much to the table that the others couldn’t. The only thing that really set them apart was their on-stage banter, which was very boyish and cute. Not bad by any means but hardly anything to write home about.
Continuing the trend of new bands that sound old, Conan was evidently another big draw – a very large, murky, but also minimalistic sort of group from the UK. They had an urgency to their sound that brought Celtic Frost to mind. On a day that hosted doom metal bands exclusively otherwise, they were the brightest spot. Their songs centered around viking mythology and warfare as opposed to occultism and depression. This managed to still be evident even though, in the live setting, the vocals were damn-near incomprehensible. This was accomplished through clever work of attitude and projected imagery. The band’s album art is all gorgeous and hand drawn and could easily be used as backdrops for the show. It really brought to mind bloody, glorious battles with broadswords swinging and skulls cracking like brittle eggshells. Conan was head and shoulders above the rest of the weekend. I hope to see them again some day.
Before the gods of gloom released us, there was one more act left to see – the Swedish stoner doom crew, Monolord. Flaunting trucker caps and denim vests, they strutted their crunchy grooves to an insatiable audience. Despite having only three members, they created one of the loudest sounds I’ve ever encountered. I even heard there had been noise complaints from neighboring buildings. They never let the fact that their music itself is extremely slow and brooding slow them down. All throughout the set, the guitarist and bassist made full use of their space on stage, swinging their instruments in a wild, ape-like manner. It was no wonder they had to stop to retune every chance they got. The crowd enjoyed the display in quiet, mellow contemplation. Me, I couldn’t shake the feeling like I was witnessing an Electric Wizard tribute act.
As the final band wound down, it became ever more evident that for me doom metal is a drug best enjoyed in moderation. Saturday had been entirely devoted to one very precise niche, which obviously had an audience but came close to becoming an ordeal by the end. On Friday, as much as I hated Bastard Noise, at least it was different. The Black Sabbath/Electic Wizard style is a path so well trod at this point, it’s practically a trench. On the other hand, it’s not a bad place for today’s youth to look should they need an alternative to the ridiculously over-produced, digital rubbish that tops the charts these days. Judging by Saturday’s crowd, I can tell many have. I, however, would like to see more diversity in future. More akin to the first Blow Up, which not only had stoner doom bands such as UFOMAMMUT, but also less definable acts such as Callisto, Betrayal at Bespin, and Fleshpress. Do that and I’ll be sure to blow up next year as well.
Photos: Marco Manzi