December, the month when fall and winter meet, when the decay of nature is concluded and the world falls into a long slumber. At least on this side of the globe. What better way to welcome the bleakest of all seasons with a nice concert of melancholic metal? Finnish doomsters Swallow The Sun went on a European tour in December in support of their latest album New Moon and this time they brought Iceland's genre-defying metallers Sólstafir and Chilean doom brothers Mar De Grises along to open for them.
Despite the unfavorable weather many people took it upon themselves to get to the opening night of the tour in Steinbruch Theater in a secluded valley near Darmstadt, Germany. Snow was falling and coldness prevailed. For a gig of this kind the setting was just perfect, so everyone who accepted the challenge of snow-covered roads was in for a treat.
I have to confess that Mar De Grises were the band I was looking forward to the most, and to the songs of their latest stroke of genius called Streams Inwards in particular. When I arrived the band was still busy on stage with the sound check and, as soon as the lights went out, they started into their set without interruption. Interestingly they didn't play any new material at all for the first third of their 45 minutes set, but instead one song each from their other two albums. Finally, the centerpiece of their set was also the centerpiece of their newest album's first half. And after two songs only ("Shining Human Skin" and "The Bell and the Solar Gust") they returned to the other two albums again.
Frontman Juan Escobar was delivering a convincing performance behind his keyboard and so did the rest of the band, truly giving you the impression that they were feeling the music. Unfortunately the subpar sound made it hard for the band to get this feeling across to the curious crowd, which obviously enjoyed the show, but wasn't pulled into the undertow Mar De Grises' music is capable of summoning. So in the end one could only acknowledge their solid performance and the interesting move to perform a cross section of their oeuvre instead of concentrating on their newest material as an opener would normally do, leaving the impression that they are equally proud of everything they've done so far.
Setlist: Sleep Just One Dawn, Recklessness, Shining Human Skin, The Bell and the Solar Gust, Deep-Seeded Hope Avant-Garde, To See Saturn Fall
Having seen them thrice in 2010 already, each time at festivals, also with subpar sound and with nearly identical setlists, my expectations towards Sólstafir were incomparably lower. Boy, was I wrong! Instead of the lame speeches and the usual "Ritual of Fire" orgy (they managed to inflate this 15 minute monster to a 30 minute snoozefest once), we got a surprisingly varied setlist - still with lame speeches though. And a lame amplifier orgy in the middle of the set. And of course a subpar sound. And against all odds they managed to blow me away this time around! Unlike the openers of the night Sólstafir managed to unfold the captivating spirit of their music, starting with the mesmerizing and mostly calm "I Myself the Visionary Head" and going on with a spanking new song with the working title "Orð" (Icelandic for "Word"), which appeared to be quite similar to their work on their latest album Köld. Some guy in the crowd has taken a video of it, so check it out if you want:
After treating us so well they made up for it by turning their backs on us, just standing there in the dark blue light and annoying us with a few minutes of plain distortion. Oh well, still better than raising needless questions for the sake of interaction, I guess. The distortion seamlessly led into the title track of their last album "Köld", a constant in their live sets. The look of the band is also a constant: second guitarist Sæþór with his cowboy hat, bassist Svavar with pigtails and a bowler hat, and singer/guitarist Aðalbjörn generally just appearing tired and rundown, giving his gritty and desperate voice an extra edge.
Eventually they finished their set, no, not with "Ritual of Fire" as I had expected them to, but with the divine "Goddess of the Ages" instead! This final song easily made up for all the flaws of their set and entangled me one last time in the cold soundscapes of Iceland. A brilliant set which should have gone on another two hours if you ask me.
Setlist: Náttfari (Intro), I Myself The Visionary Head, Orð, Köld, Goddess of the Ages
It was hard for Swallow The Sun to outperform Sólstafir and apparently many people in the audience thought the same as there was a lot more space in front of the stage than during the Icelandic cowboys' set, making it quite obvious who the real headliners of the night were. And to tell you the truth, I haven't really cared about Swallow The Sun either. Somehow I've never really gotten into their melodic death/doom metal and this performance of theirs didn't change anything about this fact. They certainly weren't bad, people were thoroughly enjoying them and the organizer of the gig stated himself that after more than 100 gigs this was the first one he had witnessed from the first row. I however failed to enjoy them. Instead I was just generally annoyed that StS chose to use little to no light at all, making it near impossible to take pictures without flash. So I'll just copy and paste the setlist and leave the talking to those who have gotten more impressions than just noticing the bad lighting.
Setlist: These Woods Breathe Evil, Hold This Woe, Falling World, These Hours of Despair, Sleepless Swans, Don't Fall Asleep, Plague of Butterflies, The Morning Never Came, New Moon Encore: Swallow, The Giant
So the night of doom was over. The headliners have left me just as cold as the weather outside. The openers were unexpectedly tame. And the special guests were unexpectedly mind-blowing. Outside the snow was still falling, sparsely and silently. Minutes later a lone rider was driving down the snow-covered roads of the now abandoned valley, blasting Sólstafir and Mar de Grises on his speakers while making his way home...
Text and photos by Daniel "Promonex" Pereira of Metal Storm.
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