Do you organize a festival? Are you tired of having attendees only coming to the venue to see the main acts? Have you tried putting one of them playing first at 4pm? That’s how you get the wheels rolling. To kick off Amplifest’s fourth edition, doom metal trio YOB brought along some bulldozer called Clearing the Path to Ascend, the sonic equivalent of a descent to some slowly burning inner Earth dimension that you can’t escape from. It sounds like there’s no way up and your day can’t get any worse after being subject to such an heavy atmosphere, but then you enter the next room and find Peter Brötzmann and Steve Noble unleashing copious amounts of insanity with their sax and drums. There’s no real melody allowing you to dance, there’s no rhythm to headbang to, still you need to find some way of letting go all the energy you’re hoarding.
Then you get to see Marissa Nadler.
Now this is my only complaint about this years’ Amplifest. I’m all for variety – this is, by far, my favorite lineup from the 4 editions – but after those two concerts, all we needed was to break some stuff. And we got a lacklustre show from an artist that can absolutely do better. Maybe her kind of performance didn’t fit the general environment of the festival at all, maybe it was just anticlimactic at the time, but Nadler’s show lacked a sparkle, despite some truly beautiful moments (1923, Firecrackers, Drive, Fifty Five Falls). Pallbearer’s gig sounded like some sort of reprise of the concert YOB presented us a couple of hours ago, packing the now scorching hot, smaller room of the Hard Club complex. Swans. I’m sorry, I loved the 2011 concert at Casa da Música, I enjoyed parts of the concert in Guimarães the following year, but I simply can’t stand your present incarnation. This could be a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, but I think I’m not the only one who finds your louder-crisper-without-any-sense-of-melody-and-more-repetitive-than-thou current bullshit just plain boring. We all love you, Michael Gira, but Swans are pretty much dead. Moving on.
Hexis and Pharmakon didn’t sound nearly as interesting as the Amplitalk “Some Girls are Bigger than Others”, about the role of women in the music industry, which we all know is a world dominated mainly by bearded guys working shitty jobs to make ends meet while promoting shows, running labels or putting festivals together, which was just one of the things discussed while attending the brilliant talk “Dark City, Dead Promoter” the next day. Please keep up with those talks next year, they’re just as interesting and important as the concerts. Ben Frost was the highlight of the first day of festival and by high lights I’m not talking about those strobe lights. Presenting his new album, A U R O R A, Frost constructed and de-constructed techno in real time as he made his compositions barely danceable just to break them up and start all over again. Just as the flame was starting to die out, Swans’ Thor Harris joined Frost on drums and took the show to an upper stage. Brilliant.
So you thought headbanging was a tough thing to do at 4pm. What about 3:30? Black Shape of Nexus opened the second day with a shitting of doom that was so much better (and way less generic!) when the vocals kicked in. Black metal wasn’t exactly what I desired to listen to at 4:30pm, so that early afternoon was dedicated to Mono’s new album listening session. Aaaaaand it sounds exactly the same as their latest records, so yes, it’s still good. Too bad Urfaust had to cancel due to family issues though: their drummer + members of Sektor 304 – who ended up being the mystery band on Saturday – jammed on their time slot but it wasn’t the same thing. Fortunately we had Wovenhand next.
David Eugene Edwards only brought a guitar player, a bass player and a drummer for this tour – a smaller entourage than the last time we saw him, back when Wovenhand released The Threshingfloor. That was enough to emulate the denser, more “metallic” sound of their latest record, Refractory Obdurate. Like a fast and heavy train rolling through a plain. The heaviest band in the festival, and they’re not even a metal band. Edwards’ preaches, moaned into his distortion-heavy (yes, I’m using a lot of words that invoke some kind of “heaviness”) mic sounded as apocalyptic as ever, suiting the festival’s overall ambiance. On the encore, after a main gig almost completely comprised of songs from the last two albums (and a cover of 16 Horsepower’s “Horse Head Fiddle”), came a magnific solo rendition of Mosaic’s stellar “Whistling Girl” and one of the highlights of their entire discography, the tribal-sounding “Kicking Bird” (off Ten Stones). By far, the best concert the Hard Club had witnessed on this weekend. (By the way, what was that song that was playing before the encore? I wanted to stomp the ground so hard.)
The weird Wolvserpent (bands with Wolf in their names!) were up next on the smaller room, but the talk we mentioned earlier was much more interesting and provided some rest before the big meal of the night that was Cult of Luna. Aaaaaand prepare for disappointment. Unlike a lot of fans, I didn’t find the gig unpleasant nor boring, but we all know they can do better. Despite playing two massive tracks from Somewhere Along the Highway (“Finland” and “Dark City, Dead Man”), CoL’s first and only show of the year since August seriously lacked spirit and vitality – they sounded exactly like that almost famous, lacking recent glory football player that returns to his country of origin in his 30s just to spend a well deserved vacation. We could discuss the necessity for a second drummer and the third guitar, but I felt that wasn’t the issue here – something else was missing. And what’s the deal with Vertikal’s “Passing Through”? I hereby present that song as “that six minute timeframe when you can leave where you are and go pick up a beer” – or a cider, if you’re as dull as that song or just slightly hangover. The keyboard doesn’t add a lot too – please keep it simple and stop messing around, guys. I liked you better when we were all seven years younger.
All in all, even if you’re not that much into extreme music – and this years’ edition appealed way more to people who aren’t, which is great since we’re all getting older – Amplifest is the definitive music experience in the Iberian peninsula. A top notch venue, stellar sound quality in all concerts, amazing hand-picked lineup, a bunch of extra-concert activities, a respectful, informed audience and a fantastic city to explore. Now do your homework and imagine where we’ll be again next October.
The happening of the Autumn, the weekend of the year.Amplifest is back for its fourth edition with the most ambitious and varied lineup ever. Where else can you findSwans, Marissa Nadler, Ben Frost, Peter Brötzmann, Woven Hand, Pharmakon, Allhousseini Anivolla or Cult of Luna fit in the lineup of a small, indoor 2-day festival?
In downtown Porto, European Best Destination 2014, lies the recently renewed and majestic venue Hard Club, in a centenary building where once operated one of the busiest markets of the city. Now it houses two concert rooms where most of the magic happens, plus a restaurant and the most pleasant mainfloor I’ve chilled in a music venue that will also hold a concert, talks,exhibitions, listening parties and a record fair. And don’t forget the film programme, which includes a really interesting screening of Raffaele Mosca’s March of the Gods: Botswana Metalheads, a film about, well, you know, Botswana’s exquisite metal scene.
But let’s not forget about what drives people to music festivals in the first place: s̶o̶c̶i̶a̶l̶ ̶n̶e̶t̶w̶o̶r̶k̶i̶n̶g̶* the concerts, of course. Here are our picks for this years’ edition of Amplifest. Be sure to check all the info, the complete lineup, buy your tickets in advance, etc at the festival’s website. Oh, we forgot. Not a festival, an experience.
PETER BRÖTZMANN & STEVE NOBLE (Sala 2, 5:25 – 6:10)
“Free jazz from free jazz!” Steve Noble’s drumming skills will be pushed to the limit by German veteran saxophonist and free jazz luminary Peter Brötzmann. I chose to not listen by anything they’ve recorded together (spoilers!), but I sure expect a lot from this duo. While Brötzmann needs no introduction at all for the average music lover who dares to challenge himself every now and then, Noble is an experienced drummer who also plays in Æthenor and collaborated with the likes of Ikue Mori, Derek Bailey or Stephen O’Malley. This should be interesting. And produce a whole lot of noise.
MARISSA NADLER (Sala 1, 6:20 – 7:20)
The calm after the storm, except for the broken hearted. After releasing a myriad of lesser known albums, which includes the excellent Songs III: Bird on the Water (a true gem and one of the most breathtaking albums taken from the American psychedelic folk revival at the end of the 00s), singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler finally broke through this year with her not-major-but-certainly-not-minor-label debut, July (Sacred Bones/Bella Union). Playing in Portugal for the first time – despite having some of her official videos filmed by Portuguese video artist Joana Linda – this will most likely be the most intimate moment of the festival. If I could take my eyes off the stage, I’d sure see people crying.
BEN FROST (Sala 1, 00:15 – 01:15)
Yes, I skipped Swans. Everyone and their mother/father has heard about them, at least if they own a Facebook account. Enough is enough and the music speaks for itself. Ben Frost is the real highlight on day 1. When I first listened to his masterpiece, 2009’s By the Throat, I certainly did not expect and was appalled by the massive layers of industrial noise (Jesus Christ, I was hoping for something more soft and mellow when I decided to download yet another Bedroom Community record) that were presented to me before its true beauty revealed itself: an album that even without using visual elements sets an entire scenery for us to glare. It could be a movie. It could be a nightmare. I know he’s presenting his – actually as wonderful – new album A U R O R A, but during an entire hour I’ll pretend I’ll be living that nightmare again.
WOVENHAND (Sala 1, 7:30 – 9:00)
One of the best possible reasons for not watching the final minutes of a FC Porto home game is being blessed with the possibility of seeing Denver’s finest outfit Wovenhand. David Eugene Edwards’ brainchild is one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget that rainy night at Casa da Música where I was repeatedly trampled by a Southern Gothic-inspired monster of a band, with Edwards preaching above all – and I liked it. This is the main reason everyone should be there and they’re worth every cent of your ticket. Shut up and praise the Lord.
CULT OF LUNA (Sala 1, 10:40 – 00:10)
Coimbra, 21st April 2007. Seven and a half years ago. That was one of the last times I listened to Cult of Luna. I was beginning to fall out of love with extreme music. I remember I didn’t even bother to pay attention to their next output, Eternal Kingdom, one year after, expect for that behemoth of a track that is “Ghost Trail”. Still, that night in a ruined monastery in Coimbra is forever carved in my mind – that was the most powerful concert I have ever seen in my life. That bunch of Swedes hit me like a sledgehammer even with all odds against them – only a couple hundred people showed up to a concert in a massive open room with the worst imaginable sound quality ever (poor Men Eater, who opened for them). Sometimes I felt my head was hitting hard against the inside of a bucket but ultimately I noticed it was free of pain and floating near some dense, dark clouds. 10/10, would experience that again.
ALHOUSSEINI ANIVOLLA (Mainfloor, 00:10 – 00:50)
Now this is risky. Listening to anything after a Cult of Luna show seems like a really bad idea, making it tempting to head home after a tough weekend. Not if you place the most exquisite proposal of the whole festival right after their concert in the mainfloor where everyone will be hanging out. Alhousseini Anivolla is a Nigerien guitarist who’s also the frontman of local band Etran Finatawa. If you follow the desert blues scene or spend your summer vacations in Sines, you probably already know about him. I don’t. And I won’t talk too much about something I know next to nothing about, but all it took for his concert to be featured here was this youtube link.
*The crossed out text is actually an ode to Amplifest’s mature and polite audience: I’ve never seen such a small amount of people talking or fucking around with their smartphones in a festival than in this one