I started off in Black Mamba. The site of last year’s pre-party this time held Pedro Roque’s Eyes Of Madness exhibition. After a day spent with the family I needed some veggies anyway, though the draw really lied in the familiar faces, good music and the black & white photography on display. Most of them were taken in shows I only managed to caught in the Dutch leg of those tours, but there were a few good glimpses into my own memories. That textural masterclass Stephen O’Malley gave at last year’s Amplifest for instance. Something to always drink to.
The festival itself started slightly down the street at Cave 45, that ever smoky basement where you’d be more likely to find a crusty punk show inside with the unavoidable drunken aftermath outside – all those beers for 50 cents sold nearby are not for nothing. The guys from Aluk Todolo got that all right, as they invited the local old drunk to the show. What a sight, arriving, getting a CRF, going downstairs and spotting the red chequered, red cheeked bastard eagerly anticipating their performance as much as the young nearby lady who wore over-ear headphones as protection for the whole weekend, or anyone else for that matter. Having played the whole of “Occult Rock” the last time around, they instead focus on the more recent “Voix”, their classic flickering hanged light engulfed by entranced silhouettes and eager photographers. A walk around, a gin and more familiar faces amidst their sweaty blackened krautrock. Perhaps even more so than any other time I’ve seen them, it’s Antoine, the drummer, that drives the whole thing forward with his relentless subtlety, dragging you along through a swampy dissonant plunge into bass feedback as the old drunk gives the double thumbs up. He gets it, alright. Back upstairs brings a pleasant encounter with a local IPA and I start to get it as well. It’s not just that Aluk Todolo playing this venue is a proper artistic choice – I had no doubts there – but that this extended experience eases the whole getting into the festival process. The next day you’re not split between for instance watching Minsk or exchanging some much anticipated words with old friends, you’ve burned that initial excitement away the night before and arrive at the Hard Club in a much more focused state, even if a slight hung over one. Back downstairs and they’ve busted out the smoke machines and Antoine still does not look like he’s ever going to stop. All normal. We are in full blown “Occult Rock” mode, the old man is gone, the hanging light finally visible amidst the smoke clouds and it all feels just right.
My first impression of Saturday is one of intense heat and too much damn sunlight. A gentle recovery my ass. A few shortcuts taken, the introductory press meeting skipped altogether and a slow walk down into the Hard Club later, I manage to slid in just on time for Redemptus. It takes some time to get both used to the sudden absence of light and into their post-something heaviness. Displays of promise with many a hitch to be ironed out, though the strong presence is all there and they are going for it, P.R.’s vocals echoing intense and pulling you in, «This is redemption», the frontman howls, «this is!» again and again and all of a sudden you hear «Sparta!» from somewhere in the crowd. Laughter ensues and I’m part of it, surprising myself as I would’ve been pissed the fuck off with the sudden break in immersion just a few years ago. «Learn to surrender», a wise man would say later that weekend. More than everyone else, he got it, alright. We’re all spoiled fucks during these days, attending a festival where every single possible delay is treated as an ultimate threat and fixed with impeccable urgency. Not only that, notes are affixed around the venue explaining the delays in a uncannily caring way and in a couple of hours everything is somehow on schedule with barely a superposition needed to fix it. A lull in music used to discuss football later, we all got our first great concert through Minsk. Finally returning to Portugal after releasing “The Crash And The Draw” last year, Tim Mead and company seem ready to take the mantle of being our new post metal overlords – Neurosis sit on a whole other place of their own creation. During their recent hiatus, it might have seemed at times that the role would befall someone like Cult Of Luna and Amenra. To an extent, Minsk lack the stage cinematography of both and the visceral expressionism of the latter, but what might be missing in the packaging they more than make up in the execution and perfect textural control of their material. In the end, there’s plenty of impressive flash and complexity on the show, just not on the presentation – maximum results through a minimal aesthetic.
Skipping the end of their set, I manage to catch a bit of “The Post Man Cometh” talk with Frederyk Rotter replacing Tim Mead who was still busy dropping jaws in the next room. Scott Evans delivered there, from the «metal is done, time to close up shop» style remark about listening to Meshuggah for the first time to some measure of distaste for what he called «genre bands», a stance I’ve ebbed to and flown from time and time again. That point of view came back while withstanding Altarage, who at least thus far are exactly that. Suppose you have the Premier League of nasty black/death. At the top sits Portal, with acts like Grave Miasma and Bölzer easily securing top half positions. Then there’s the Championship, and a solid place there already means there’s not a lot you’re doing wrong. That’s the case with the Spanish side, the performative side is there, musicians clad in black veiled hoods blasting their lo-fi onslaught in ritualistic manner. Hell, judging by the eager swarm of photographers and the enthralled looks in the crowd, they’re not doing anything wrong at all, just missing that couple of memorable riffs to take an already polished concert to the next level.
From something relying as heavily in atmosphere as Altarage to the polished tightness of Kowloon Walled City, you almost get the feeling that the two approaches cannot coexist – a notion that Toby Driver and his Kayo Dot companions would utterly dispel later that day, in a mesmerizing stage 2 performance. During Kowloon, though, it was time for geometry to reign. I’ve regularly read the «angular riffs» expression and was never truly sure about its meaning, though now I’m convinced that whichever way it may be defined, there’ll be a note saying “e.g. Kowloon Walled City”. Never during their set do you have the feeling of being enveloped by the riffs, they cut through you and Scott Evans smiles delighted. They do it at their own methodic pace and the bodies surrounding me sway and smile as they do so in the ever fitting right-angled setting of Hard Club’s main stage.
[Anna Von Hausswolff]
After this, my notes go through twenty pointless minutes sitting at the Hard Club’s restaurant waiting for any sort of reaction, a forgettable pizza in delightful company somewhere else and a quick foray into the intense performance of Anna Von Hausswolff. «Funeral doom meets Kate Bush/ Kate Bush at 40 bpm», a happy looking R. would tell me later. I like his description enough to leave it at that and jump straight into my main take away from that evening, that Kayo Dot are the best representation of what Amplificasom stands for on this year’s edition – an uncategorizable melting pot of heaviness, tight musicianship and high attention to textures. Never mind there were songs written for a bigger ensemble, Toby Driver and company brought it that night. I’d later dance and sway through Roly Porter‘s set, marvelling at how he managed to guide one to a cathartic state through essentially beatless electronics at one point, only to scream and sing-along to Reverend Bizarre’s “Doom Over The World” mere minutes later during that night’s Iberian DJ set, which managed to include Dopethrone‘s memorable version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” a couple of hours after I’d had a lovely chat about David Eugene Edwards outside, who covered that same song with drastically different results. The beauty and the filth always manage to meet in Amplifest, turning the whole thing into a proper repellent for genre purists. As it should be.
Sunday is where I heard the surrendering thing and slowly started to get it. Before that, I trudged onto Hard Club‘s welcoming sights and sounds via percussion-and-pipes folklore being done outside, got a brief glimpse at the polished sounds of Tiny Fingers, grabbed a beer and headed over to Tesa, proof that Neurosis know how to pick touring partners close to home sound-wise. A welcome if slightly unknown addition to the line-up, the Latvian act set the first example of the day of how the lights set up of the second room can enhance performances, Névoa and Prurient being the others. There was something just right in how the projections, their spaced out post metal and the strong lights hitting the cymbals from underneath mixed together and I find myself still having the mental picture of their bassist Karlis standing barefoot on the tip of his toes to scream in front of it all. Maybe it was that good mood that managed to get a show of The Black Heart Rebellion to do something to me it that no show of them had managed before: beg me to stay. I hadn’t enjoyed them this much since discovering “Har Nevo”, which leads me to believe I might have just been unlucky with their shows as my usual complaint of lack of tightness was nowhere to be found that day.
Speaking of contrasts with previous performances, Névoa seemed like an altogether different band from the one I saw last January, as they presented the new “Re Un” in the secondary stage. Sheer evolution displayed through a stronger line up – including guest percussion and Miguel Almeida (Orök and Atila) on guitars – and an overall darker feel. That virulent jazzy incursion which became of “II Contemplation” was a particularly good illustration of how well they presented it. As well as Névoa did there, so did Hope Drone a few hours later. Having been distracted with time before, I ended up eating during the beginning of their set and though I would have thought otherwise, live black metal and sandwiches do go well together, that and a stoned dude next to me downloading the Livescore app to keep up with Arouca. As for the Australians, theirs was a foray into well crafted atmospheric black metal, surely one of the most competent ones I’ve been in this side of Wolves In The Throne Room. Hell, take away the outright brilliance of a song like “I Will Lay Down My Bones (…)” and you’ve got something quite comparable.
In a move not altogether dissimilar to last year’s brilliant Altar Of Plagues – Basinski sequence, their wall of sound was followed by Oathbreaker‘s “10:56”. From all the instruments coming together as one with distortion aplenty to Caro Tanghe by herself, mesmerising all of us whilst standing as exposed as it gets and reinforcing the idea that she has recently managed to achieve a more visceral effect whilst singing clean than most do while ripping their throats open. The rest of their set didn’t quite feel either at their usual level or that of “Rheia”, mostly due to a sound that tended to blur too much, as if hinting that the stark transition undertaken on the new record still has to be ironed out. Nevertheless, we’ve got more than enough glimpses of what might be coming our way on their upcoming European tour to be looking forward to it.
Back to the surrendering idea, a few years back I’d forcefully watch Downfall Of Gaia and CHVE entirely right before the Neurosis set. The unavoidable outcome would be a lack of focus on the former and of freshness to absorb the latter. At some point you gotta let go and follow that buzzing voice in your head that commands you to do only two things and in a precise ordering: first, get overwhelmed by Neurosis and recall once again why they are not only one of the most relevant bands in the history of heavy music but also one of the best live acts you’ve ever witnessed; wrap that up, take a deep breath and run to the next room to be punched in the face by Prurient.
The historic moment had finally come and the first ever Neurosis show in Portugal was about to start, thirty years after the band’s creation. Even if I don’t live there any more, if the whole relationship between Scott Kelly and the local audience is some sort of mythical story that I’ve only heard about and even given that I’d seen the two special anniversary sets earlier this year, the electricity in the air was obvious. If you couldn’t feel it as the room stood close mere minutes from their starting time, then your heart might have stopped beating for unrelated reasons. They finally begin and there it is, that motherfucking riff. “Times Of Grace” is on, the ceiling should be falling on our heads any time soon. It doesn’t, the new “Bending Light” sweeps in as if an old friend just dropping by and then we get truly lost in it all. To arrive at the bar and year conversations happening as if “Lost”’s starting sample isn’t echoing in that very room is frustrating to no end but it all gets forgotten once I return to the front. From “Enemy Of The Sun” to “Through Silver In Blood”, from “Lost” to “Locust Star”. Throats are ripping out, Noah is punching is keyboard like a mad man and as we plunge into sheer heaviness, full with the knowledge that Dave Edwardson is about to step forward and those final lines will be heard, forcefully hammered into our awe struck skulls. By the time they close shop with the immense “Stones From The Sky”, it has dawned on me that while the setlist wasn’t as special as the two Roadburn ones, something flew better this time. They’re not fucking around when they refuse to cater to fans when choosing their setlist, the honesty permeating their approach for the last thirty years isn’t some gimmick and as much as you might prefer some particular songs over others, you get something else when they’re playing what feels right to them. This felt right. Felt like home.
Deep breath, a last shaky look at the stage, the time had come to get nastier. Run, get a beer, switch room and there it is, Dominick Fernow answering my prayers. Nothing danceable, nothing pretty, just the most abrasive and in your face performance this festival has ever seen, to the point that every time he gets the mic in hand and confrontationally heads to the edge of the stage, the dude in front of me cowers instinctively. I get in front of him to get a better-uninterrupted look at the spectacle. Less diabolical than Gnaw Their Tongues last year but way more visceral in its impact, live Prurient is bile made art, a performative middle finger to our collective face, even if the room sits unsurprisingly half empty – it’s Sunday night, Neurosis just played and, I might have mentioned this before, this is some nasty shit. The set finishes and after two failed attempts of an encore with a literal middle finger to the PA guy for not turning the sound back on, we get something to dance our exhaustion away in the form of “A Meal Can Be Made”. Thanks Mr. Fernow, that’s a proper way to cap the best sequence in the festival’s history.
As the night came to an end, bringing the usual mix of exhaustion and blissfulness, something felt different. The looming prospect of the Steve Von Till show the next day meant all that rush of trying to squeeze as many goodbyes as possible during that post-Prurient period was pretty much gone. Just as a well placed rug does to a room, so does the extended experience really tie an Amplifest together. Sure, Monday’s recover was though, but going through it with no further performances to look forward to would have been way less pleasant.
Monday evening eventually comes around and a small crowd waits in the entrance of Passos Manuel. Knowing of Scott Kelly‘s solo concerts in Portugal and the stories of an irreprehensible quiet crowd during them, I was looking forward to testing that premise myself and well, it holds up. First, and while the room was slowly packing itself, it was Frederyk Rotter as The Leaving weaving frail tapestries with human relations as the main motif and an execution as diametrically opposite to his main endeavours as possible to imagine. The ending of the set saw Noah Landis come on stage to add an extra layer of beauty to an already surprising performance, especially with how Rotter‘s voice grows on you during its course, as if that somewhat off-putting initial tone was just a reflection of that natural discomfort of a first interaction.
For Steve Von Till, however, the room was packed, including all of us scribes, photographers and the lone sketch artist sitting on the bottom of the steps. After having seen a very similar set in Roadburn, I wasn’t ready for just how much stronger this one was. It’s not only the sitting against the standing, it’s the added time used for storytelling and, mostly, the pervasiveness of silence throughout the room, creating space for the hoarseness in Steve‘s voice to hit harder, for the simple but beautiful guitar arrangements to echo uninterrupted for as long as they should. Before a rendition of “We All Fall” in which it became clear how far he’s gotten since releasing “As The Crow Flies”, he tells how that was the first solo song he ever wrote, one morning sitting by his bedroom with guitar in hand, a morning in which «the world was a quieter place». Amidst the set, goosebumps keep on coming, still returning more than a month later whenever I hear “A Language Of Blood” and that perfect ending, tears roll down for a moment only to give rise to a dumbfound smile on the next. «This evening whispers», he sings in “Birch Bark Box”, and a sentence couldn’t be more applicable to the state one is left after that ever precious “Known But Not Named” brings the festival to its end. For it felt that to speak loudly could break the spell in which we found ourselves. I manage to hold the silence for a while, being close to a whisper as I order a bourbon, and blundering an attempt of formulating a coherent sentence moments after. My notes around this time have but one word , “humbling”. I stand by it, witnessing Steve Von Till at Passos Manuel that night was as humbling a concert as I’ve ever witnessed.
[Steve Von Till]
Finally, the surrendering idea that crept into my head during Saturday’s talk with Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till started to manifest itself in a concrete manner and it relates to Amplifest’s motto: «not a festival, an experience», one which I’ve sort of rejected over the years as expressed in previous reports, and one which I find myself finally understanding this time around. Either I finally got it or they finally did it, either way I’m sure that this extended version played a crucial role in this change. Never had those words rang truer in my head to describe a festival – it was a tight-knitted experience with superpositions nowhere in sight and a very carefully designed running order. If that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, more so in a beautiful, sunny city, then Amplifest has become a completely obvious choice.