Mondays aren’t normally known for being a great night out. The dark and frigid night would not normally help push your numbers up either. Thankfully, I was walking into a concert for some black metal bands so it was pretty fitting. Englewood’s Gothic Theater just outside of Denver is well known as an excellent metal and punk venue. The capacity says 1,100, but you couldn’t tell looking around.
I mention the numbers since this is the Decibel tour for mainly black metal bands. While many stalwart metal fans recognize the value and sound of black metal, it’s likely the least popular subgenre simply because so few black metal bands have broken into the mainstream even in the lowest levels. That is by no means a criticism of the genre. If anything, it helps you appreciate the live show more. You’re watching bands you love with fans who are equally psyched to be in attendance. It makes the show just that much better. While the opener is the least similar to the rest of the billing, it was completely fitting.
Setlist: “Candlelight” / “Three Gates” / “Isolation” / “The Bereaved”
Nothing like starting a series of black metal sets than doom metal. Denver’s Khemmis certainly sticks out in the crowd on the tour, but it was a perfect way to pump up the crowd. This is actually my second time seeing Khemmis live. The first time left something to be desired. Not their fault at all since the sound was off the first time. The fact that all the gears were firing this time totally saved their live show to me.
Khemmis is interesting since they infuse their version of doom with power metal instrumentation. There is a lot of dual guitar-style melodies in their songs with Ben Hutcherson and Phil Pendergast playing in octaves and parts. Normally this would add an over the top cheesiness to the songs, but the tempo actually benefits from it by giving it some subtle nuance. It also plays well live. Whenever you hear this on a record, the thought occurs to you that maybe this was just overdubbed and wouldn’t work in a club but these guys are on point with it.
Their sound is also gigantic. They pummel you with sound waves. The bass and fuzz just rumble through your bones. You actually feel the song even more than you hear it. What helped more was the size of the particular venue. The sound has nowhere else to go but your skeleton. The sound is built for an arena but works best in smaller clubs like the Gothic Theater.
Setlist: “The Serpent” / “Ulvinde” / “Onde Børn” / “Ulvesangen” / “Måneblôt” / “Elleskudt”
Get it straight right now: Myrkur is fantastic. The pariah of the black metal scene gets a bad rap for absolutely no reason other than obvious, naked sexism. Myrkur makes such interesting and haunting music. There’s an orchestral quality to what she does that can almost sound like chamber music. It sounds very intimate even in a concert venue with a thousand people.
The show itself was equally great. Myrkur knows how to create an atmosphere. The lights were low and the band was only lit by blue and purple backlighting. You only saw silhouettes of the group. Amalie Bruun’s voice itself added to the ambiance. While she can bust out the scratchy vocals, she seems to stick with her angelic singing voice. The contrast between her music and her voice only add to the environment, making everything much more haunting and overwhelming. Her music sounds like it’s straight out of a horror movie. There’s nothing like sweet singing vocals over intense instrumentation to absolutely chill you to the bone.
And while there have been thousands of articles and blog posts written about it, it still has to be said again: the metal scene needs people like Bruun. This is the kind of diversity that’s required to represent all metal fans in the music. It’s not just that Bruun is female. It’s so much more than that. The kind of music she makes is so rare. It has such a unique and original sound that is not often heard. These are the kinds of perspectives we need in the genre to help it grow and flourish further.
Wolves in the Throne Room
Setlist: “Born from the Serpent’s Eye” / “The Old Ones Are With Us” / “Angrboda” / “I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots”
To be perfectly honest, Wolves in the Throne Room was the main event for me. I prepped myself for the penultimate act. I reviewed all their albums. I watched as many clips of their shows as I could find. I had my own list of songs I wanted to hear. Even with all this introductory work, I still was not ready for them.
It was mind-blowing. WITTR clearly do a lot of work to prep themselves for the live show. They were totally in sync right down to the hair swaying headbanging. I don’t recall even the hint of a slight flub. It started with some synth drones while someone burned a bundle of incense. Then the band comes out for the introductory chords of “Born from the Serpent’s Eye”. Just like Myrkur, the band is backlit with standard stage lighting through a thick fog from smoke machines combined with the incense. It is completely fitting with their environmental take on atmospheric black metal. Everything about it is completely enrapturing.
While not all of their songs prominently feature synthesizers and keys, the band has incorporated it into their live show. No matter what they were playing, the synthesizers were a huge feature. It further creates the atmosphere since the keys can create a certain base level to build off of. “I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots” is the best example. The original recording on Two Hunters does not feature synthesizers at all, but they have come up with a new part of the song that compliments it in such a way as to further build the depressive and cathartic atmosphere of the original song.
Even though I did all the prep work I thought I needed to finally see one of my favorite bands live, I was still totally blown away. Their stage presence is fairly stoic and puts all of the focus on the music. Even given that, the atmospheric quality of their music combined with their naturalistic stage settings made the show extremely memorable. So memorable in fact that I may never listen to WITTR again unless I’m in a foggy forest.
Setlist: “Storm Song” / “Roots of the Mountain” / “Vetranótt” / “One Thousand Years of Rain” / “Sacred Horse” / “Isa”
Out of the bands on the ticket, Enslaved was the one I was least familiar with. As a result of the events of the early black metal scene in Norway, people might be hesitant to listen to the band’s music. Surprise! Enslaved aren’t horrible people! Hooray!
The band came out very quickly after the end of the Wolves in the Throne Room set. The most surprising thing was how warm and friendly they seemed. Unlike many bands in the black metal scene who try to remain silent and mysterious, Enslaved actually creates a rapport with the audience. It was an interesting change from the previous bands that maintain a certain distance from the audience in order to focus all the attention on the music and the ambiance. Enslaved wants to invite you in. Singer and bassist Grutle Kjellson actually said the phrase, “We don’t bite.” Which was nice but maybe also a little disappointing.
While they originally formed as a black metal band, Enslaved has since progressed and evolved dramatically beyond that. They have experimented with black, death, and many things in between that are more reminiscent of Opeth and a progressive sound than any kind of genre. While they do still dabble in specific genre sounds, it’s more in an effort to contribute to a particular track as opposed to a genre sound. “One Thousand Years of Rain” definitely incorporates black-style singing with a more death-style songwriting and techniques in a progressive song.
This was easily one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever been to. All four of these bands had something to contribute to the night. Khemmis woke up the crowd; Myrkur set the mood; Wolves in the Throne Room focused the energy; and Enslaved expanded some minds with their progressive sound. I heard, I saw, and I felt. You couldn’t ask for anything more from a concert. Even if the bands aren’t playing together, you can’t miss any of these bands. Each of them makes sure the show is tight and everything is on point. The show was great because the bands care. If you’re watching a band that’s off, then the atmosphere is ruined. Decibel has put together some incredible shows in recent history. Make sure you see it in the future.