Mgła // Coscradh // Drakonis // Live Review // The Limelight // Belfast

Somehow, a Black Metal show on a pre-summer Sunday night was packed to the fucking rafters, as Polish force, MGŁA finished off their trio of Irish tour dates in Belfast. The gig kicked off with the long-awaited return of local stalwarts DRAKONIS who had a few tricks up their collective sleeves. Also on the bill was COSCRADH, the Dublin-based extreme metal outfit hailing from various parts of the island, who also provided support on the two preceding dates in Dublin’s Opium and Limerick’s Dolan’s Warehouse, home of the revered Siege of Limerick which the band also played last month. The night was an absolute tour-de-force: a showcase of extremity and extreme talent; a masterclass in visual aestheticism; an aural acknowledgement of the more wretched elements of existence; a meeting of friends old and new; a celebration of returning local antiheroes, visiting bands, and music in general. But, rather, unfortunately, it wasn’t a night without mishap.

Recipients of the worst luck possible, and not alone in it, Drakonis had been tirelessly working toward the release of their debut album Blessed by Embers when the pandemic arrived and sideswiped life as we knew it, like a giant monster palming cities to dust with barely an afterthought. There was a lot of anticipation surrounding the album’s release, both at home and far and wide, as the band had built a steady following through years of intense, theatrical shows and self-produced singles and EPs that showcased their intelligently written brand of music that uses Black Metal as a base to craft fully conceptual, cohesive, fluid songs that entwine storytelling and melody while still maintaining distorted tremolo guitars, blast-beats and harsh vocals demanded by the genre. The launch show to unleash the album, with support from other local heavyweights ORACLE and MOLARBEAR, was set for the first weekend in April, right around the time that the miserable realities of covid and lockdowns were setting in amidst the naïve hope that it would all be over soon enough. As if this wasn’t bad enough, over the two-year slog from then to now, the band lost three members – vocalist Sleeve, keyboardist Serah Decay, and bassist Stephanie Dickey. Fans of the band were afraid that this was the end, even despite the band’s insistence that it wasn’t. I guess the passage of time just has that eroding effect on hope.

But, rejoice! Drakonis are back! Well and truly back. Different in appearance, maybe, but not so much in sound. Change is inevitable, and the band has never been one to shun it or the opportunity of progression that it can bring. In the weeks leading to the gig, there were hushed whispers and hints regarding who was going to be brave enough to step into the very large shoes left behind by Sleeve and Stephanie, as they both left such indelible bootprints on the Drakonis DNA, in regard to both live shows and recorded material. Stepping up to the plate, Nicole Quinn aka Madre Tortura is the new voice and face of Drakonis, with Chris King the new bassist.

From the very first song, it was obvious that the new lineup works. Unable to squeeze the entire album into an opening slot, the band decided to forgo album opener Threnody in favour of the Blessed by Embers title track itself to kick things off. This was a shrewd move, as it was able to pay respect to the band’s history and previous members that worked hard to see the album come to fruition, as well as usher in the new era and new members, while immediately showing those in attendance that there was nothing to worry about with regard to whether or not the new members would be able to hold their own. And, of course, it was a statement of intent, a reintroduction for anyone that might need it: “We are Drakonis and we are back.”

Before a single note was played, the band were lined up on stage, ready to go. Assembled in a uniform as such, the stringsmen were wearing black trousers with white shirts, with subtle touches of corpse paint adorning their faces. There was even an eyepatch thrown into the mix, for good measure. The white seemed to pay homage to the Blessed by Embers album cover to a degree, as well as provide a visual counterpoint to the Madre Tortura outfit, which was mindblowing. Wearing a jet black dress that had a Victorian-style wide skirt, with corpse paint underneath a dark bridal veil that obscured her face and gave a demonic impression, Nicole would not have looked out of place in a James Wan horror movie. To complete the ensemble, she wore a black spiky headpiece that would put the Statue of Liberty to shame, creating a look that can only be described as Bride of Sauron. When combined with her uncanny valley invoking movements, it was truly mesmerising.

This is a band, just like the other two on the bill, that understands that going to a live show is not solely about listening to the music being played – arguably it should always be the focal point. The eyes take in as much as the ears, and when bands put effort into their visual aesthetic it turns gigs into more of an event or a spectacle, and it’s always appreciated, especially because it’s by no means necessary.

Touching on that, perfectly nailed visuals count for shit if the music itself isn’t worthy of the effort. Luckily, new Drakonis is just as good as old, at least live anyway. Bandleader and only remaining founding member Saul McMichael acted almost like a conductor for the other members while Nicole acted as a conductor for the crowd, using her limbs in an almost marionette-like way to ensnare the crowd into a trance. You know it’s effective when you come to a set intending on windmilling but instead find yourself almost glued to the floor, eyes locked on the stage.

Everyone was on point during the opening track; well-rehearsed and tuned in. An exceptional rendition of an exceptional song. There’s a segment roughly halfway through it with an anguished scream so unbelievably wretched that it chills the bones and plagues the mind long after it’s finished. And Nicole absolutely fucking nailed it. To be able to dispel any potential doubt so early in what must have been a nerve-wracking performance is incredibly commendable.

As the set went on, the crowd got more and more into it, with heads banging and fists punching the air that accompanied in-tandem chants to fan favourites like Fear of the Wretched. Drummer Lee McCartney pounded away on the skins and kicks while Saul, Chris, and guitarist Tommy Hewitt attacked their respective strings, with the guitars, in particular, sounding almost identical to how they do on the record. Perhaps aware that Stephanie’s stage presence was inimitable, Chris stood anchored in place along with the other white shirts, choosing to focus on the notes he was playing over anything else. As calm as a hangover-free Sunday morning, he seemed completely unfazed as he played through the set song by song, using what was almost undoubtedly the very bass that Stephanie herself played. A nice touch.

It was a fantastic set, despite the briefest of moments when Nicole’s microphone knocked off now and again, sadly a harbinger of worse to come once Coscradh hit the stage, as well as the occasional facial expression from Tommy which suggested there was something amiss, despite nothing going wrong from the crowd’s perspective. Apart from the fact that the drums started to sound not-quite-right. Wooden. Off. The mystery as to why was quickly solved after a song ended and Lee asked Saul to pick up the drum mic that he had knocked to the floor, which got a chuckle or two from the crowd. Perhaps the worst thing about the set was that there was no time for An Anthem of Ashes to be played, the poignant Black Metal ballad with thought-provoking lyrics and an immense solo that closes Blessed by Embers. Hopefully, we’ll actually get that album launch show at some stage, after all. And if we do, hopefully, there’ll be another group of people unwittingly moshing to a speech delivered by none other than People’s Temple cult leader Jim Jones, the man responsible for over 900 murder-suicides in the Jonestown Massacre, if only because of the absurdism of the situation is something that will never be forgotten.

Up next was Coscradh, another band who made an impression before they’d even played a note. If the corpsepaint of Drakonis was italics, then Coscradh’s was bold. Added to this were the blink-and-yep-they’re-real animal skulls attached to the front of the three microphones on stage, as well as the jawbones and skulls adorning the necks of the three front-facing members of the band. It seemed as if they had performed a raid on the Ulster Museum on the way to the gig venue. Or that they were part of one of the exhibits detailing Ireland’s violent past, come to life. The persistent red stage lighting and the two brutal scrims hosting a man’s slaughtered head on a pike only added to the aesthetic, as you can imagine.

Formed around 2014 following some uninspiring forays into the Warzone, they are another band who have been in no rush to release a debut album. A handful of demos and EPs were offered up over the subsequent years, including last year’s two-track Mesradh Machae, which means ‘the heads of the men who have been slaughtered and is a reference to the Celtic

Cult of the Severed Head. Fittingly obscene for a band whose name translates to mean a battle or war that ends not just in victory but in a complete massacre and slaughter of the opposing force. Dubbing themselves Gaelic War Metal, the band’s lyrical themes encompass death, despair, dread, and suffering, as the band intentionally eschew the satanic fantasy and mythological folklore approach to songwriting and thematic material in favour of the real-life violence that seems intrinsic to humanity, as well as the specific barbarism and violent insanity entrenched so deeply in Ireland’s past.

Not that the actual lyrics themselves matter as much when your brain can’t decipher a single one amidst their infernal delivery. While the three stringsmen shared vocal duties, founding member Ciarán Ó Críodáin bore the brunt, sounding like a Mediaeval demon of the night declaring the beginning of an inescapable apocalypse. With bassist Hick O Aodha and lead guitarist Jason Keane adding their own guttural depravity to the vocal mix, as well as high-pitched wailings that would be a perfect accompaniment to death’s carriage as it floats down to claim a soul, this was a genuinely unnerving territory, as much for the actual demented sounds made by the three as for the sheer unpredictability of them. And that’s without even mentioning the music itself.

Like a brick to the face, the wall of noise created by the trio’s wickedly distorted strings and drummer Boban Bubjnar’s frenetic stick hits was merciless. Preferring to linger around danger zone tempos with the occasional slower passage thrown in to keep people on their toes, the four were unrelenting in their sonic slaughter. Brutal riffs were in abundance, often changing tempo and weaving in and out of each other, swirling around delirious drumming and a frenzy of blast beats. As with a lot of modern extreme metal outfits, the line between Black and Death Metal was blurred, though Coscradh seemed to lean more to the black side of things. Not that such things overly matter. Except when the lead guitarist erupts into actual guitar solos, a relative rarity for the subgenre. As if things weren’t calamitous enough, his spider-running-across-a-wall fretboard runs were dizzyingly fast, particularly the refrain of the Plagues of Knowth solo.

Sadly, though, the band themselves suffered from their own plagues during the set. For a lot of it, Hick’s microphone couldn’t decide if it wanted to work or go join the bus drivers on their strike. He would often lean into it to growl or cry or shriek, only to be greeted with silence, and then between songs, when attempting to remedy the situation, the mic would suddenly be working as if nothing had happened. You could see the man’s frustration rising in real-time. It was particularly disappointing when he whipped out an Irish recorder and attempted to play some discordant notes through the microphone. Yes, you read that right. Forget what people say about the uselessness of learning to play the recorder in school, kids. One day you might need it when your extreme metal band goes on tour!

This wasn’t the worst of it. Lead guitarist Jason suffered from a mutinous guitar strap that gave way more than three times before his own frustration got to him. Fucking the guitar away to crash down onto the stage floor, he abandoned the stage altogether. Coscradh continued on as a three-piece until he came back, initially just to annihilate his microphone, but with the help of a stage tech, the unruly guitar was dealt with enough for him to finish the remainder of the set without pause.

As disappointing as the equipment issues were, and they always are, it would have been worse had it happened to any other band on the bill. Obviously, it would have been better had they not happened at all, but in a strange way, they seemed to corroborate the general atmosphere of unpredictability and calamity. One thing immediately made up for the recorder incident, anyway. Hick’s microphone mercifully played ball when he raised none other than an Aztec fucking death whistle and assaulted the crowd’s ears with it. This led to a Freddie Mercury style back-and-forth between him and the crowd taking turns calling for more. Except for the fact that it’s not even remotely possible to imagine Freddie belching out an Aztec death whistle to a Live Aid audience.

Insanity in music form, Coscradh achieved levels of truly depraved, deranged chaos rarely seen in the subgenre outside of the notorious Scandinavian bands. They are a band that has to be witnessed to be believed, and you will either be craving more or else wanting to run home, depending on your constitution. If you are the type that would be wanting more, the band are releasing their debut LP titled Nahanagan Stadial in the coming months. For those unaware, the band’s set during the three Irish Mgła dates consisted of the new album in full. The more you know.

And finally; the reason most people were in attendance. It was time for Polish heavyweights Mgła to take the stage.

Formed in Kraków at the turn of the millennium by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mikołaj “M.” Żentara alongside drummer Dariusz “Daren” Piper, who were both original members of KRIEGSMASCHINE at the time. The band was initially intended to be a studio project and side project of sorts with Kriegsmaschine being the primary focus, but over time the inverse became the reality. In 2006, the year that saw Mgła release the much-lauded EPs Presence and Mdłości, Daren left the band and Maciej “Darkside” Kowalski took over on drums. Incidentally, Darkside also took over drumming for Kreigsmaschine. As the years and subsequent releases went on, Mgła was building a steady following based solely on recorded material, as they had not toured or played live until 2012, which saw the release of their second full-length effort, With Hearts Toward None as well as the band’s first foray into live touring, for which they allegedly rehearsed for an entire year prior.

Once they ascended to the stage and began playing, it came as absolutely no surprise to anyone in the room that extensive practice and rehearsal are second nature, the modus operandi for

a band like this. With a setlist encompassing songs from three of their four full-length albums as well as the aforementioned Mdłości EP, the band seemed to be celebrating their own legacy as well as presenting a varied offering for their most loyal fans. M. and Darkside were joined by Mgła’s long-serving touring musicians Michał “The Fall” Stępień and Piotr “E.V.T.” Dziemski, on bass and guitar respectively.

Almost in direct antithesis to Coscoradh’s red hues, the stage was lit exclusively in drab blues. All four band members wore matching leather jackets over black hoodies, under which they wore black morph-style masks that created the impression of faceless executioner hoods. Visually speaking, Athenar’s MIDNIGHT would be absolutely perfect to support Mgła on a future tour. The overall aesthetic was beyond effective and meant that, when combined with the fact that neither of the four moved much at all during the entirety of their set, the music itself was given pride of place.

Opening with the second song from Age of Excuse, their most recent album that they were touring in support of before covid put a stop to their plans, the band launched into a memorable and intense set. The band used genre standards of blast beats and tremolo riffs and utilised them in a way that defied convention. Guitar picks were essentially abused as repetition was used to great effect with riffs being played on and on and on over the top of unrelenting drum attacks hammering underneath that created nightmarish soundscapes full of dread. Throughout this, particular note patterns and chord progressions wove the tapestries of noise in such a way as to craft a genuine atmosphere, that, like the mist that the band’s name translates to, descended upon the room and cast a spell over anyone in earshot. The band used guitar strings and drumsticks the way a clichéd hypnotist uses a spoon or pendulum-swaying medallion to ensnare the focus of their attention into a trance.

For some, the spell was unfortunately broken, however, only three or four songs into the headline set when a member of the audience thought it was a good idea to raise his hand in a sieg heil nazi salute, to which he was immediately met with a flurry of incoming punches from those in the immediate vicinity. Those who responded to his gesture were either kicked out or left of their own volition, it was unclear in the ensuing melee, but the man himself was allowed to stay, after which he did the gesture at least twice more with a shit-eating grin plastered across his face.

Even a cursory glance at Mgła’s Wikipedia page shows there is a section entitled ‘Controversy’, highlighting how the band had had shows cancelled in 2019 after being accused of having links to nationalist socialist black metal acts and of being racist and anti-Semitic. You can read a measured write-up surrounding the scenario, written at the time from somebody with a relatively intriguing position and point of view, here.

TO MGŁA OR NOT TO MGŁA – ON METAL AND HATE

 

Regardless of one’s position on whether to Mgła or not Mgła, as the article is titled, the scenario does conjure up interesting questions:

Can you truly separate art from the artist? Should you?

To what extent, if any at all, is an artist responsible for the behaviours of those who are directly influenced by their art?

Inversely, are there ethical or moral obligations inherent in the consumption of art?

In a subgenre that often intentionally sets out to be extreme, to be offensive, to be scornful, how extreme is too extreme? How offensive is too offensive? How scornful is too scornful?

If one has a desolate, embittered viewpoint on life, existence, and/or humanity, does it make more sense to direct ire at everyone as opposed to targeting specific groups? Or, as Tom Araya put it; hate everyone equally.

How many times can you raise a nazi salute at a public event before being ejected?

While some of these are more hypothetical than others, the answer to the last one is, apparently, at least twice. One thing is for certain, though: don’t perform a sieg heil at a gig without expecting at least one fist to the face. Especially less than 24 hours after ten innocent bystanders were mercilessly executed in a racially motivated hate crime conducted by a deranged, violent white supremacist.

Thankfully, the incident at the gig wasn’t enough to ruin the night.
Mgła played an absolutely stellar ten-song set during which not a single member seemed

to play a single wrong note or put a foot wrong. M. ripped through song by song, screaming his guttural lamentations at the crowd, opting not to interact between songs which only further served the atmosphere that enshrouded those in attendance. E.V.T. and The Fall, standing along with the man’s wings, stood anchored in place, playing as accurately as robots that were specifically programmed to perform the set, with the motionlessness occasionally broken when the bassist leaned forward to deliver incredibly powerful backing shouts as and when needed.

The highlight of the entire set, however, was Darkside. This is a drummer that has to be seen to be believed, and even so, the footage might need to be recorded and slowed down and analysed just to dispel any imagination that there may be an invisible, drumstick-wielding octopus positioned just behind the drum stool. The man has a synergetic relationship with his kit and his sticks and pedals. It seemed as though they were an extension of his mind, with his limbs

and the physical motions required to play being relegated to mere necessity, such was the apparent ease that he seemed to play such mindblowing passages and phrases. As expected, there were blast beats galore, and Darkside did not seem to discriminate between typical blasts and ones of the hammer, bomb, and gravity nature. And his work on the cymbals was simply otherworldly. The intricacy and proficiency of his playing cannot be overstated. There were genuinely jaw-dropping moments scattered throughout the set. To call him tight would be an understatement. This applies to the rest of Mgła; they are one of the most technically proficient touring bands performing at the minute.

The first line of 2015’s Exercises in Futility is, “The great truth is there isn’t one.” This, along with the album’s title, might give an indication of some of M.’s preferred themes to write about. Another example to reiterate the point is the last line of Age of Excuse I: “There is no path to follow, but a nightmare of endless repetition.” This sort of existential hopelessness permeated throughout the lyrics of the songs performed on the night. Even the very fact that the band choose not to name their songs, instead of assigning them with roman numerals after the album title, goes yet another step further to highlight their views of the meaninglessness inherent in life. But this seemed at odds with the reaction of many people who were there to experience the set. Largely arising from moments when the music went from 32nd-notes to 16th-notes or even 16th-notes to 8th-notes, and vice-versa, there were expressions of sheer joy and in some cases ecstasy upon the faces of the people bearing witness. These were in conjunction with the many assenting screams and chants that erupted both during and between songs. A musical atmosphere of morose existentialism gave birth to infectious feelings of jubilation and awe.

In all, it was an intense, fantastic gig that will most likely linger on in the minds of those who attended. Despite a few mishaps and regrettable incidents, there was more to celebrate and be thankful for than not, as three phenomenal bands descended upon the city, each showcasing their own particular brand of extreme music that was impressive from a musical, visual, performative and creative perspective. Not bad for a Sunday night, eh?

Review by Mark Russell.

Photographs by Wayne Donaldson. // TWKOM

 

MGŁA: https://no-solace.bandcamp.com/

COSCRADH: https://coscradh.bandcamp.com/

DRAKONIS: https://drakonis.bandcamp.com/

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