Elder Druid Golgotha album launch
With support from So Much for the Sun, Slomatics, and Nomadic Rituals
To launch new album Golgotha, ELDER DRUID hand-picked three bands that they knew would create a cohesive and complementary atmosphere for the music that they were unleashing into the world. And it paid off in spades.
Kicking off the night was SO MUCH FOR THE SUN, a fuzz-fused sludgy stoner/doom three-piece who set the tone and the cosmic turtle pace that continued throughout the rest of the gig. As with all bands that played, they used a modest amount of pedals to sculpt a fantastic tone and atmospheric soundscape. Appallingly heavy funeral dirge riffs meandered along pointedly, in no rush, with guitarist Nathan Irvine and bassist Niall Waterworth often playing the same thing simultaneously so that each note was felt rather than just heard, while drummer Ashley Irwin pummelled along steadily keeping the beat, embellishing the riffs when necessary. Aware that consistently slow, downbeat, down-tuned riffage can become stale, So Much for the Sun write and play the music that is kept fresh and interesting. Unexpectedly and without a moment’s notice, their songs have sections that suddenly double in tempo, and each band member kept time perfectly. A relative rarity, drummer Ashley had a microphone hooked up beside him, sharing vocal duties with Niall. The two had perfectly contrasting styles, with the latter’s harsh and harrowing screams-into-the-void providing a counterpoint to the former’s clean-but-not-spotless prophetic doom-mongering. And if that wasn’t enough, things were shaken up even more when splashes of cosmic oscillation were occasionally spewed over their riffs, giving their music an overall visage of a funeral procession drifting through space amongst stars and a dying sun. It’s no surprise that Elder Druid chose these Lisburnians to open up proceedings, having picked them to play not once but twice at previous Plain Living Promotions’ Crypt of the Riff festivals.
It’s one thing to be lucky enough to see a band with a singing drummer, but two in one night is essentially unheard of and was an absolute treat. Long-standing local heroes SLOMATICS took to the stage next to smother the crowd in even more cosmological heft. Imagine getting high, and then suddenly gravity no longer works and you find yourself drifting up into the sky and beyond, floating through cosmic dust and astrological debris; each passing speck, rock, boulder, asteroid, comet, and planet whirring by, creating an indelible wall of noise that builds and builds with steady repetition until you’re almost overwhelmed by a cacophony of sound. All the while, somewhere in the distance, seemingly coming from every direction and no direction, echoes of either God or a lonely astronaut or both are siphoned and filtered through, embalming you in an entombed womb. That’s how Slomatics sounded during their avalanching forty-five-minute set. Having no need for bass, Chris and David’s twin-guitar barrage was tuned low enough to all but shake the walls of Voodoo. Behind the wall of sound created by their repetitive drone, Marty hammered away on his drum skins while singing emphatically, every now and again rolling out symbol-heavy frills that actually sounded like a wall being shattered to pieces. Perhaps most impressive of all was his timekeeping ability. More than once, mid-song, all three would stop playing, and silence almost as loud as their music filled the room. Whether counting to himself or counting the other two in with his sticks, the music launched back in with him at the helm in such a perfect way that it didn’t just seem like he had a metronome in his head, it seemed that for him, rather than being an abstract concept, time itself was a real and tangible thing. Something that he owned.
Next up were NOMADIC RITUALS. Yet another band with an unconventional set up. Like So Much for the Sun, two members shared vocal duties, and in front of the guitarist, Peter Hunter was a tabled pedalboard, complete with a synthesizer keyboard necessary for the band to achieve their stunning, almost frightening smorgasbord soundscape. With down-tuned, hefty string work, Hunter and bassist and co-vocalist Craig Carson dispersed a thick, intoxicating aural fog into the room that was billowed by Mark Smyth’s minimalistic sledgehammer-tied-to-a-pendulum skull caving drum strikes. Wretched vocals and guttural shrieks that at times conjured the sounds of a tortured Gollum screaming, “Shire! Baggins!” were traded between Carson and Hunter, instilling a sense of foreboding and dread, with lines like, “Get out of here and leave this place” almost acting as a warning to the crowd, suggesting that they stay listening at their own peril. Indeed, when synth and samples were added to the band’s cauldron mix and blended with the stunningly vivid lighting of Voodoo’s stage, it seemed as though anyone within the range found themselves trapped in a psychedelic nightmare. But in a good way. Nomadic Rituals’ upcoming release has a lot to live up to.
By the time the last support band was finishing their last song, anyone who wasn’t grooving or headbanging was nodding their heads in unison to the music. It seemed now the crowd, too, were keepers of time, having had a crash course forced upon them by the contagious efforts of the sublime ensemble of support bands. But any expectation, any knowledge or anticipation of what was to happen next was quickly thrown out the window, for Elder Druid have grown into a beast, colossal and all-consuming, just like a certain mighty snake they’ve written a song about.
Rather than keeping time in the same vein as the bands that came before them, it was as though the Druid had cast a spell over the crowd, suspending time itself for the duration of their set. There are few bands who match their hypnotic prowess and ability to capture and control the attention of a crowd. There is so much going on at any one moment in any one of their songs, with every single component acting as an essential foundational piece, that when joined together create a labyrinthian, gargantuan force of nature. Their set was as crushing, as bludgeoning, as eruptive, and as affecting as a raging tempest, an arctic blizzard, and a firestorm colliding together above an exploding volcano.
Drummer Brien Gillen and bassist Dale Hughes couldn’t have been any more locked-in, hammering out each song’s rhythmic infrastructure together as musical architects. The former had a powerfully restrained, dichotomously heavy-soft way of hitting the skins that brought to mind the tragically underappreciated Clive Burr, while the latter’s instrument was an extension of himself, a fifth limb that he had complete control over, his fingers seemingly clambering over every single string and every single fret.
If Elder Druid is known for any one thing, it’s their dedication to and worship of The Riff. On top of Gillen and Hughes’ fierce foundation, guitarists Jake Wallace and Mikey Scott conjured up riffs so mesmeric, so enthralling, and so consuming that it seemed they were summoning sound through the invocation of an ancient spell or primordial ritual, so powerful that it threatened to break free and devour not just the room but the world itself. Indeed, long after the gig ended, remnants of the spell still lingered, their riffs having burrowed into the heads of those in attendance.
The addition of the second bassist Daniel Zanker Ovalle, making the band asymmetrical hexad, couldn’t have been any more justified. In addition to bolstering the overall sound and bringing the heft to full capacity, his presence and adrenaline were like a bolt of lightning that jolted throughout the room, electrifying both the crowd and the other band members. He also freed up Hughes to play keys on a few songs, a welcome addition spawned from the progressive direction taken in the latest release Golgotha. At one point near the end of the show, frontman Gregg McDowell even used a theremin, the somewhat obscure instrument that is controlled by the hands without touching it, which made him look like an amalgamation of a music conductor, a mad scientist, and a magician.
Hypnotically writhing and undulating along to the music played by his cohorts, McDowell was a perfect conduit. The energy channeled by both his bandmates and the crowd was absorbed and reciprocated immensely through his twisting torso, lithe limbs, and rotating wrists, all the while his impressive bellowing, screeching, and squalling reached every part of the room. By the time the band finished playing all seven tracks of Golgotha, it seemed that almost everyone was headbanging or grooving along, unable to resist the snake charm hexed on them. However, numerous calls for more songs were rejected by McDowell, and the band members began putting away their instruments. Or so it seemed.
Literally, at the stroke of midnight, Elder Druid launched into perhaps their mightiest song, crowd favorite ‘Titanoboa’, a one-song encore that all but destroyed the room, but didn’t take too much attention away from their newest musical offerings that were the focal point of the gig and which they are clearly proud of, with good reason. They are a band that seems to be going from strength to strength, most of it a result of hard work and graft as well as boundless creativity and exceptional musicianship. To quote the repeated line that ends track ‘Dreadnought’, what you reap is what you sow, and with the Belfast album launch already being a contender for gig of the year, as well as it is followed up by a European tour, a slot in the upcoming Bloodstock Metal to the Masses, and several festival appearances, Elder Druid are reaping a hell of a lot right now.
Review: Mark Russell
Photography: Wayne Donaldson