“It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
Edgar Allan Poe
While the great Poe might have held a dread of impending doom, there is a host of fine folk in Finland who are keenly anticipating it. For the third successive year, Blow Up That Gramophone will be hosting the doom-laden BlowUp Festival, a two-day celebration of all that’s dark and dreary in the metal world. BlowUp Vol.3 boasts another stellar line-up, 10 mighty bands from 7 countries, performing in Helsinki’s Korjaamo cultural centre on October 13th and 14th.
Festivities, for want of a better word, will begin suitably enough on Friday the 13th, when Russian band Phurpa take to the stage. As is usual with BlowUps, the line-up always includes something very different, and for 2017 the very odd band out is Phurpa. Although hailing from Russia, the music of Phurpa has its roots in the early pre-Buddhist rituals of Tibet. Prior to that noble philosophy reaching the ancient peaks, eldritch shamanic rites were practiced there, evolving over time cults known as Bon. Phurpa, based in Moscow and led by the charismatic artist Alexei Tegin, are a musical group that recreates, and keeps alive, the old traditions of the Bon.
Using a specific kind of overtone chanting and tantric singing techniques, Phurpa use traditional ritual instruments to perform their music. These include the dungkar (a horn made from a massive seashell), dungchen (a three-metre long trumpet), silnuyen (flat cymbals), nga (a double-sided drum), kangling (a trumpet fashioned from a human thighbone), shang (bon tambourine), rolmo (another type of cymbals), and the damaru (drums made from human skulls).
Phurpa was formed in 2003, and since then have been very prolific in their musical releases, with around 20 or so albums, although some were released on cassette. One thing is certain, if you haven’t heard this band before then you won’t have heard anything quite like them.
The second band due to perform hail from England and will be familiar to fans of doom metal around the world. Warning debuted in 1999, with their “Strength to Dream” album, gaining immediate cult status. In their own way they signaled a return to traditional doom, although their own take on the genre was original. Warning’s music was, and remains, notable for its dirge-like down-tempo melodies, and especially for the melancholic and poignant vocals of Patrick Walker, with his deeply confessional and introspective lyrical themes.
Although their debut release garnered cult status, they disbanded in 2001 following a European tour with Jack Frost. Fortunately they reformed in 2004, performed live at The Doom Shall Rise festival in Germany in 2005, and the following year released the seminal “Watching From A Distance”, acknowledged as one of the landmark metal releases of the last decade. Sadly, Walker broke up the band in 2009, before they recorded anything else, so two albums is all we have from Warning. But what a pair of albums! Past attendees of BlowUp will remember Walker’s set with 40 Watt Sun from the first festival, one of the highlights of the two nights, with great fondness. It would seem that once again the Helsinki audience is to be blessed, as Warning had originally reunited earlier this year for a one-off performance at Roadburn, where they played ‘Watching’ in its entirety. That one-off has now become a second performance, and one that will likely be unmissable.
Hailing from Japan, Church of Misery are a psychedelic-tinged doom-metal band fixated on serial killers. Since their formation in the late ’90s, Church of Misery have released a continuous stream of EPs and splits, and six full length albums packed with the misery that informs their name and fascinates them as a band. The line-up has constantly evolved, with Tatsu Mikami being the only survivor from the beginning.
Whereas Warning epitomises the slow down-tempo side of doom, Church of Misery are a wholly different beast, with riffing and tempos more from the realm of sludge. While their first album, 2001’s “Masters of Brutality” channeled Sabbath both in title and cover art, the tracks themselves were more influenced by The Melvins and Eyehategod. This was followed by 2004’s “The Second Coming”, and a live DVD of their 2005 tour. By then CoM had established themselves as a live band with few equals, so much so that they’ve performed at Roadburn in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012. In 2014, Church of Misery toured Europe three times, following which vocalist Hideki Fukasawa, guitarist Ikuma Kawabe and drummer Junji Narita collectively quit, presumably from exhaustion.
Their sixth album, last year’s “And Then There Were None”, was recorded in the US and featured Dave Szulkin (Blood Farmers), Eric Little (Earthride) and Scott Carlson (ex-Cathedral, Repulsion), however none of these are in the current live band.
The fourth performance of the opening night will be from American band Usnea. Relative newcomers, Usnea formed in late 2011, and fuse elements of funeral doom with black metal, sludge and drone. The overall tones are depressive, with vocals varying from black screams to death growls, and lyrics exploring the quest for meaning in a world filled with oppression and negativity. The sound is massive, crushing, and yet oddly contemplative.
Following their bruising self-titled debut album in 2013, the sophomore effort “Random Cosmic Violence” established Usnea as a significant band in the doom genre, with four tracks clocking in at just under an hour. Although generally perceived as blackened funeral doom, there was enough on ‘Random’ to suggest they had higher, more psychedelic aspirations. Which brings us to this year’s release, “Portals into Futility”. Once again, the vocals swap between growls and screams, while the overall sound is expertly crafted depressive doom, with a hint of sludge. The world Usnea evokes is a dystopian one, and they do so in dissonance. At times, the sound is almost cinematic, but the overall feeling is one of brutality, of monumental futility in the face of human hubris. Epic stuff.
The headline band on Friday is Ufomammut. They headlined at the first BlowUp festival too, and if fans could have had their way, they’d have headlined at the second one as well. They are that good. Formed in 1999, they have been described as a doom metal power trio, which is something akin to saying that lava can be warm. Ufomammut are a law unto themselves, and describing their music is a nightmare of potential inadequacy for any reviewer.
Ufomammut have released seven albums to date, with their eighth album due out between now and BlowUp Vol.3. What has been consistent in all their releases to date is that the songs are long, are centred around repetitious heavy riffs, with drone-like vocals that build to ecstatic screams, and involve liberal use of synths and special effects. Synths, not keyboards; you’re not going to hear the tinkle of keys anywhere in their extensive catalogue. While their debut “Godlike Snake” in 2000, their sophomore “Snailking” in 2004, and their third album “Lucifer Songs” established the template for Ufomammut, it was “Idolum” in 2008 that saw them progress into something that was at once unforgettable and unmistakable. Slabs of monolithic, crushing doom were given a hugely psychedelic boost by layers of synth drones.
Then came “Eve” in 2010, a single track of 45 minutes of haunting, if suffocating, beauty, divided into five movements with a consistent and evolving musical theme. This was followed in 2012 by the album(s) “Oro”, released by Neurot, as “Oro – Opus Primum” and “Oro – Opus Alter” – both releases can be considered as a single track, with the ending of ‘Primum’ flowing straight into the beginning of ‘Alter’. This was followed by 2015’s “Ecate”, which for some fans, who felt the ‘Oro’ project had some filler moments, was a massive return to form. Easily one of the most fascinating, original, and mind-bending bands in all of the doom world, Ufomammut continue to push the boundaries. This is progressive, psychedelic, esoteric, and positive doom metal.
Saturday night’s entertainment begins with a Finnish band that seem to be having an identity crisis of late, in that they have for no good reason decided to call themselves PH. Think of Prince and his bloody symbol phase, though he at least had the excuse of being in a war with record executives. PH is (or was?) Mr. Peter Hayden, a band beloved of Finns, who have embraced post-rock, psychedelic rock, space rock, post metal, doom metal, and prog, during their evolution.
It should be noted that there is no Peter Hayden in the band, and god knows where they got the name. Who cares. Their first album, 2010’s “Faster Than Speed” garnered a rave review from Julian Cope, who knows a thing or two about Krautrock, and was followed by “Born a Trip” in 2012, described by H.P. Taskmaster at The Obelisk as “a singular work that rises and falls tidally, offering minute wave-like undulations to coincide with the larger push and pull. The band remains markedly individual in their approach to space rock, focusing more on the darkness and vastness …”
There have been three releases since then, “We Fly High” and “Archdimension Now” both released in 2014, and this year’s “Eternal Hayden”. While notably shorter than previous albums, the album continued the band’s tradition of creating highly original material that crosses genres and marks them out as something entirely special.
Next up is the second and final Finnish band of the night, and of the weekend, Spiritus Mortis. If Domkraft are the newbies, then Spiritus Mortis are the haggard old uncles, having formed in 1987 as Rigor Mortis. Unfortunately for them, there was already an American band with the same name, so they became Spiritus Mortis. They released 8 demos between 1990 and 2002, collector items now, before their debut eponymous album in 2004, followed by “Fallen” in 2006. There were three split releases before their third full length “The God Behind The God”, and then in 2016 they released “The Year Is One”.
Spiritus Mortis play old school, traditional doom metal, and they play it perfectly. Having taken Albert Witchfinder of Reverend Bizarre on board as vocalist, the band have found not just the perfect singer, but also the perfect lyricist. Spiritus Mortis don’t experiment much, they know the formula for traditional doom metal, but what they do with that old formula is perform it at a level few can master.
Following Spiritus Mortis we have the only Swedish band playing at BlowUp Vol. 3, a three piece outfit called Domkraft. It’s rare for BlowUp to feature bands without a long history on the scene, but newcomers Domkraft are here thanks to their 2015 self-titled debut EP, and last year’s album “The End of Electricity”, both of which established them as skilled exponents of psychedelic doom. I’ve had their “Invaders” from 2015 stuffed into three different playlists, and never tire of it.
Formed in Stockholm, Domkraft members bassist/singer Martin Wegeland, guitarist Martin Widholm and drummer Anders Dahlgren have all played in previous bands, but bonded over a common love for old bands like Hawkwind, Spacemen 3, Monster Magnet, and Sleep. Drawing on those influences, Domkraft spent a few years crafting their own sound that takes the heaviest elements of those, blending monoliths of crushing power chords, with pure psychedelia, into a mix of blistering, hypnotic doom. Headbanging heaven, in fact.
The third band to perform on Saturday night will be Noothgrush, who hail from California, and are named for a character in a Dr. Seuss book – and there ends everything sunny and funny. Formed in 1994, they released 4 demos before their first EP, followed by 6 splits before their first and only album in 1999, “Erode The Person”.
Which isn’t to say Noothgrush haven’t been busy – apart from a gap between 2001 and 2006, and another until 2011, the band have always been active. The Noothgrush sound is distinctive, musically the doom roots are always evident, but this is doom delivered with post-hardcore venom. This is nihilism, with vocals delivered with the intensity of early Neurosis, or AmenRa. There is no holding back, there are no prisoners taken. Their ghastly take on doom blurs the boundaries with sludge, the themes and lyrics are rooted in horror, in misery, in despair. Their take on humanity is pessimistic, extremely so. There are no uplifting moments to be had, no nostalgia to bask in. In 2014 they released the “Entropy” EP, which featured the track ‘Life Shatters into Pieces of Anguish’, which pretty much sums up the Noothgrush world view. This will be the darkest performance of the weekend, and very likely the most honest.
The final performance at BlowUp Vol.3 will be from one of the very first doom metal bands ever. Formed in 1978, under the name Tyrant, they changed their name to St. Vitus in 1981. Although St. Vitus never made the breakthrough into the mainstream of metal, they have nevertheless exerted a significant influence in the development of doom metal, as well as sludge and stoner rock.
St. Vitus released their debut eponymous album in 1984, and another 6 albums between then and 1995, all of which have become collectibles with doom fans. The sound evolved, mostly through better production, as the band never veered from the ideals they adhered to, which was to create and build upon the Sabbath legacy of doom. Reuniting for some live shows in 2003, it was 2007 before they really got going again, and in 2012 they released their last album to date, the critically acclaimed “Lillie: F-65”. In 2014 they toured Europe on their 35th anniversary, performing their seminal album, 1986’s “Born Too Late”. They haven’t performed in Europe since. For doom purists, this will be the crowning performance of the weekend, made all the sweeter by the fact that original singer Scott Reagers is once again front and centre for St. Vitus.