Night had already fallen on our grim, winterbound city when we set off on a two-hour drive northwest toward a grimmer, darker and colder destination. We being Anton and K-Lee; JH and JH’s girlfriend, Elle; and Yours Unruly. Our destination: Cleveland.
JH drove, and, thanks to my long legs and utter lack of chivalry, I rode shotgun. The Jeep Liberty’s stereo blasted Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes, a bootleg of Von’s Satanic Blood demo, Devourment’s 1.3.8. compilation, a few songs from Anathema’s Judgment, which was quickly deemed an error in JH’s own judgment, and, finally, Evoken’s Quietus. Indeed, the eclectic mix of various subgenres of metal was a welcome contrast to the unreeling sight of the night-shrouded, barren world beyond the Jeep. If not for the mile markers and road signs, I would have sworn that we were riding on a treadmill before a huge landscape painting titled The Wasteland at Night.
We arrived at the Agora Ballroom some minutes after we had planned to, but, alas!, time waits for no bladder. Eventually, we found some iffy parking behind the venue, in front of what was called the Agora Offices. We were informed by a security guard working the parking lot that we had opted not to pay $5 to park in that the entrance to the Ballroom was “on the other side of that big, dumb building.” So we five trudged through the moon-illumined snow toward where stood a shivering, impatient line. Along the way we passed two giant tour buses. I wondered: Did Revenge not get their own bus? Of course they didn't. Then my mind set to thinking about how those three men in Revenge must feel when they climb into their van at the end of the night while the members of Mayhem and Watain board their huge buses like carefree vacationers. As if in answer to my thoughts, I heard coming from inside the venue, through the brick wall, the destructive sound of Revenge. The drums sounded like two jackhammers fighting to the death; the vocals, though muffled by layers of brick, mortar and steel, snarled with unmitigated rage.
We stood at the back of the line, which was about 30 yards long, for maybe 13 seconds before JH concluded that he was going back to the Jeep for his jacket. Then, only seconds after JH had trotted back through the snowy lot, someone shouted with authority: “If you got tickets, c’mon up to the doors!” Half of the line broke off and headed toward the other door. I told Anton, K-Lee and Elle to go ahead. JH was my “+1,” and he wouldn’t be able to get in without me.
When JH took longer than he should have, I stood with my ear pressed to the brick wall, listening to Revenge. As badly as I wished to be inside getting pulverized by their martial brutality, I was aware, also, of how fitting it was to hear Revenge through a brick wall as I stood in the snow, as if in exile, and full of frustration. Then, with his bomber jacket unzipped to show his Demoncy shirt, JH finally appeared, reporting, with a beaming smile, that he had moved the Jeep to a better parking spot. I rushed him into the venue where, of course, the man working the will call side of the line couldn't find our tickets. Whether it was my seething impatience or that I was representing the venerable Pittsburgh City Paper, I can’t say, but before he’d even checked the stack of purple envelopes a second time, he asked: “Was it just one ticket?” It was two, I told him, and he waved us in, wishing us a fun time and a safe night. I was grateful that no ill-placed wristband would be tearing off my arm hair, but also I had no physical evidence that I had seen Mayhem, Watain & Revenge in Cleveland. Oh well, thought I, onward to the onslaught!
The Agora Ballroom seemed smaller, darker and, on the whole, dingier than I remembered it being when I saw Agalloch there some years ago. I began to doubt that it was at the Agora where I had seen Agalloch. Regardless, it seemed a fitting place for the night that was already unfolding around us. I made my way straight to the middle of the floor, among a crowd thick with black hoodies, long, mussy hair, battle vests and the smell of beer and armpits. An appropriate setting and perfect conditions for the music that was marching over the crowd like mammoth-drawn steamrollers. Though I had expected the Albertan three piece to be heavily armed with gauntlets and spikes and wearing gas masks, I was, instead, endeared by the simplicity of Revenge’s attire and stage decor. They were dressed as ordinary men and they played before tall, black and white banners bearing the artwork for their latest full-length, Scum.Collapse.Eradication. The austerity and long-running continuity of Revenge’s album covers has little to do with their rabid, cult following, but it is no less a noteworthy bonus, and the artwork from S.C.E as backdrops, like military standards, somehow made an already crushing performance all the more sanguinary. Though I was, here and there, distracted by a skeletal hand that poked out from behind the stage right banner. I knew this was probably some back-lined prop for Watain’s set, and I couldn’t help but preemptively roll my eyes.
I have read that the live drumming of Revenge’s James Read is hypnotic, and I must say, after witnessing him play firsthand, that this is not quite the case. Rather his drumming is concussive. Add to that the guitar- and bass-slaying of, respectively, Chris “Vermin” Ross and the trollish Tim “Haasiophis” Grieco, and what you’ve got is a barrage of frothing, vicious barbarism the likes of which few bands can match. If you’ve ever heard Revenge on record then you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that somehow they sound exactly like that live. The vomited, pitch-shifted vocals, it turns out, might not be pitch-shifted after all. The bass was both obliterating and subliminal. And the drums . . . Sweet, merciless Satan, how did the drums sound like that? Admittedly, I hardly recognized any of the songs they played, as I was transported to another dimension where chimerical beasts gnawed on my brains and, with leathery tongues, lapped at my life force, but I was grateful when they closed with my favorite song of theirs, “Parasite Gallows (In Line).” I could hardly even headbang for how much I was tossed about in the pit, but all those sweaty bodies that slammed against me were nothing compared to what was hurled down from the stage. Revenge, having raised their fists over us in gratitude, quit the darkened stage and I started gathering my wits like shards of glass scattered over the floor.
I found JH and Elle first. JH apologized to me that we’d missed some of Revenge’s set, but all I could do was practically swoon into his arms, saying: “The brutality, the brutality!”
JH and Elle offered me a beer, but I was reluctant to accept their offer, as I was on the job and wanted to keep my wits sharp. Anton and K-Lee didn't bother offering, they just handed me a tall, frosty can of New Castle Brown Ale. “Cheers!”
Why do venues insist on playing loud metal in between metal bands' sets at metal shows? Have there been studies conducted on this? Does anyone care what the audience wants? Or are we simply livestock funneled into a room, distracted by loud noises, awaiting our slaughter en masse? Perhaps the loud music in between sets is intended to chase the audience out of the standing room area, toward the bar and the merch tables?
It was at the latter that I found myself, checking the goods Revenge had smuggled over the border. They had t-shirts, flags and CDs. As always, I was in the clutches of destitution, but a Revenge shirt was more than just a cool score, it was an investment. I saw a short, roundish man with Celtic knots tattooed where his sideburns should’ve been carrying what looked to be a Revenge flag, but, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a white t-shirt. I asked the man, after a polite throat clear and an “excuse me,” how much the shirt had cost him. He told me it had cost $25 dollars. I gave such a start that if I had been wearing a hat it would’ve flew right off my head. “Not too bad,” said a woman who drew on her eyebrows, who I might assume, by her having a similar scent and lack of reality, to be the short man’s partner. I pulled out my phone and told the internet: “Revenge shirts are $25. Watain are selling scarves.” The next time I checked the thread, after the show, two pages of replies had been posted, many in disbelief, some in defense. According to a guy at one of the labels Revenge has worked with many in times in the past, t-shirts were so costly “due to the tour management taking a cut of all band merch sales.”
I found myself back on the floor before the stage, but in a dark corner, beneath a wall where couples cuddled and anticipated Watain. I leaned against this wall. Anton and K-Lee stood a few feet in front of me. We had a good spot, but it was soon overtaken by beer-belly-bearing, ex-straightedge dudes who seemed more concerned with their merch scores than with the show itself.
I saw that the drum kit was on an obscured dais book-ended by two crucified skeletons. Here was the owner of that skeletal hand I had seen reaching out from behind Revenge’s banner. These props were not so endearing as store-bought Halloween decorations, yet they weren’t like something from the original Dark Shadows series either. The props, I decided then and there, were best described as “chintzy.”
After some time, covered in makeup to make them look like as if they’d burrowed up from Hell, Waitain took the stage. The singer, Erik Danielsson, came out holding, by its horns, a ram skull of questionable authenticity. I couldn’t help but smirk at the thought of him literally “raising the horns.” Later, after a quick intermission, he came out carrying a human skull with horns and a mullet, and my smirk changed to a sneer.
Watain’s set was tight, energetic and triumphant, but I was bored. My lower back hurt in that way that it does when I’m bored at a show. Halfway through their set, some torches mounted atop (or around) the guitar cabs were lighted. This helped to entertain me as I’ve always been fascinated by fire.Also of note was how, during the last of Watain’s songs, the ersatz fog was so dense upon the stage that the diminutive Danielsson appeared as some freakish daemon that would duck beneath and spring out of the thick, bluish brume, wailing blasphemies and scathing hosannas to the dark forces of chaos. And here I must give credit where credit is due for it was Anton, and not Yours Unruly, who heard a little “The Call of Ktulu” played at the end of one Watain’s songs. But for all their Metallica worship and onstage poetry recitations and hokey decorum, Watain passed by me like the view from a subway window: Dark, fast and underground, but entirely uninteresting.
After Watain’s set, the five of us gathered in a circle near the merch tables and we discussed the night thus far while I avoided eye contact with people I hadn't seen in over ten years and could’ve gone six times as long and it still would've been too soon.
JH bought a Revenge flag, which he rolled into a tight bundle and stuffed into his jeans.
My throat was feeling dry and itchy. I blamed it on the Jeep’s heating vents blasting into my face on the way down, but I harbored a secret fear that it was a portend for something worse.
I had heard from the internet that in other cities a large portion of the crowds were leaving after Watain’s set and before Mayhem’s. I am happy to report that this was not the case in Cleveland. Regardless of how our two cities feel about each other when it comes to sports, I must say that “The Rock 'n' Roll Capital of the World” knows “what’s up,” at least when it comes to metal shows.
We made our way back to the floor to await Mayhem’s arrival. Mayhem certainly took their sweet time. The roadies made many appearances on the stage, sometimes to the mistaken applause of the crowd. Hellhammer came out first, amid an uproar — to which I did not lend my voice, because Hellhammer can fuck right off. Then came the two guitarists. The one who goes by Teloch wore a baggy hooded cloak with black cloth concealing face. The other, Charles Hedger, is a large armed, bald man as stoic as he is proficient at that style of black metal tremolo picking (arguably) invented by Euronymous all those years ago. Next appeared Necrobutcher, bassist/founding member of Mayhem, whose wild salt-and-pepper hair and manic grin betrayed the seriousness of the guitarists. But it was Atilla’s entrance that made everything — the drive, the hold-up, the crowded and the crowdedness, the Watain, the feeling in my throat, the ambivalence I have toward Hellhammer — all totally worth it.
He wore a slim-fitting, olive-green military jacket, not unlike something a fascist dictator might don. The jacket was opened to show off the well-known, large, wooden and bejeweled crucifix hanging about his neck. On his left hand: A leather-band with four spikes — what you might call a "knuckleduster.” He stood between four beams of white light, two on each side of him, in the lower triangle of an X. His face was a flesh damask. Blue arabesques, no doubt of some hidden anti-cosmic relevance, had been expertly painted upon his whitened face. The face paint combined with his hanging black mohawk, like a curled-over rooster’s comb, reminded me of Heather Ledger’s The Joker. Yet he had a warm and most inviting air to him. To begin their set, he said: “Deathcrush!” and it was on.
Then they played “Pagan Fears.” Like pieces falling away from a rocket, my limbs separated from my torso, which itself was then rendered immaterial. I re-manifested in physical form just in time to act the hooligan for the half-time part. I had been waiting 10 plus years to hear “Pagan Fears” live, and when it finally happened I could’ve been stabbed nineteen times and died then and there I was so happy!
The rest of Mayhem’s set was an euphoric blur. I remember Atilla dueting with a skull: An incredibly potent act that should make Erik of Watain put his skulls away forever. As you know, Atilla replaced Dead, Mayhem’s original vocalist, who shot himself in 1991. For Atilla to hold a skull, to grip it in the same hand as he gripped the microphone, to have this skull, at times, facing the crowd and, at other times, facing himself . . . Well, you understand where I’m going with this. The implication is staggering. I thought to myself: Here is death-worshiping music played with unmatched zeal by a band whose very history and fame is founded on death.
Mayhem encored with more mandatory songs, eschewing their new album entirely. I don’t dare lodge a single complaint about Mayhem’s performance that night, but I love the new album and wouldn't have minded hearing “Trinity” or “The Watcher.” If I’m mistaken, if they did play a song from Esoteric Warfare, then it occurred in the aftermath of one of the many elated paroxysms that overcame me during their set. So I am blameless for any error in the facts herein reported.
For the encore songs, Atilla wore a purple and black Dracula cape and the stage lighting was changed to match. The crowd shouted for more after the members of Mayhem raised their fists over and filed off stage, but our supplications were answered only by the music of another, lesser band blaring from the PA. The stage lights dimmed. The night ended. Many were drunk, all were drained as we made our way back out into the cold night where we would eventually return to our meaningless lives until the next show came around and we would, once again, have cause to rejoice.
I drove most of the ride home, nearly suffocating in the Jeep’s intense heat, which apparently has only two settings: Arctic or Hell. By the time we paid the ungodly expensive tool at the Pennsylvania border, the scratch in my throat was a full blown soreness, and the whispered rumors of an illness haunting my head had come true. We got gas in Cranberry and Elle drove the rest of the way home. They dropped me off at my place around 3 am. Sleep came quickly, but rest was not to be found in the dismal depths.
I spent the next two days in bed. I told my professors and my bosses that I had a feverish head cold, but I knew it was more than that. I was afflicted by the night itself, but not by its drastic temperature changes or its myriad germs. Called hyperkulturemia by some, Stendhal had experienced a similar kind of sickness after witnessing Giotto’s frescoes in Florence, 1817. I was bed-ridden for two days because I had been privy to something great and mysterious, something my brain and my flesh could not take in stride.
And I would do it all again without a moment’s hesitation.