The surreal nature of tonight is not lost on the audience in The Fleece. Today was meant to go very differently, the first day of Temples Festival’s third year with black metal legends MAYHEM set to top a bill including acts like PISSGRAVE, REVENGE and MGLA. The series of events though leading to the cancellation of Temples less than a week before it was due to kick off left both bands and punters out of pocket, and in an incredible showing of determination and last-minute organisation multiple venues around Bristol have stepped up to put on shows for those locked into their travelling commitments. Tomorrow The Fleece hosts an all-day event with bands such as DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT, BONGRIPPER, RAMESSES and ALL PIGS MUST DIE while SVALBARD and MEEK IS MURDER play The Gryphon, Sunday sees The Exchange play host to JUCIFER, CONAN and others, and most unbelievably of all tonight MAYHEM play to just over 400 people lucky enough to get tickets just two days prior.
The most last minute addition to this show are openers FUNERAL THRONE. Their fiery, no nonsense black metal is certainly suited to tonight’s bill and they look the part, the four men on stage feeling genuinely imposing and menacing. Their dual vocal approach is undoubtedly not unique in 2016 but it is definitely effective, the tyrannical shouts and screams coming from stage left and right bouncing off of each other giving their sound more character. Bizarrely though it almost feels like the man in-between them, guitarist B., is the real frontman, perpetually seeming seconds away from utilising his guitar as a bludgeon as he leers over the people in the front row and dominates the space. The sound at first robs them of the distinctness between riffs and songs but as it gradually clears up the groove in tracks like Through Transforming Fire begins to shine through while others rattle forth with the energy to get things off to a riveting start.
In contrast, ESOTERIC barely seem to have a frontman at all. Vocalist and guitarist Greg Chandler’s preference of headset microphones allows him freedom but subsequently results in him blending into the background as he stands largely still along with everyone else in the band or occasionally wanders off to the back of the stage towards the amps. It’s easy to forget just where the vocals are coming from, especially due to their guttural, inhuman and drawn out nature, and if you were to close your eyes during their set you would have roughly the same experience. This criticism though is hardly damning; ESOTERIC’s music matches their name and this is not the place for posturing. Their enveloping funeral doom is a nice contrast to the blistering and icy feel of the bands before and after them, with a guitar tone that could smash concrete. Technical issues with the bass at one point diminish their weight but they remain an absorbing abyss throughout, and when they climax by kicking the pace up for a closer that’s positively speedy by their standards they leave on a high.
The sight of the MAYHEM backdrop behind Hellhammer’s gargantuan and formidable drum-kit so close on a stage of this size is enough to get the icy cold blood of any self-respecting black metal devotee pumping long before they come on stage. MAYHEM are on this run joining the ranks of the many bands performing albums in full. An overdone trend this may be, but when that album is De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas complaints are kept to a minimum. This also means they open with Funeral Fog, which doesn’t hurt. The infernal sound that rips forth from the stage kicking straight in with those unmistakable blast beats is instantly pulverising yet enticing. MAYHEM here are on ferocious form, the show skirting round any pretense of “ritualism” tonight and instead lunging straight into a violation of the senses. Moreover while lesser songs might have their intricacies totally swallowed up by the intensity of such an onslaught, this is De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and they shine with the brilliance of an all-time masterpiece. Every person in the room instinctively knows every ebb and flow of Freezing Moon, moving in tandem with every lurching riff and every tempo change. The more angular likes of Cursed In Eternity and Buried By Time & Dust slither in and out, while things come to a head during a savage Pagan Fears as its proclamations are bellowed back from the audience.
The two guitarists on either end of the stage stand with hoods obscuring their faces, riffs written by a deceased forebear spilling out of the speakers. Hellhammer is at no point visible during the entire set, constantly obscured by both the thick layer of smoke and that enormous drum-kit, but his presence is certainly felt in the unrelenting percussive assault as he blasts consistently with ease. Necrobutcher on bass simply stares down the audience like they’ve just spat in his pint, but the real star of MAYHEM in 2016 is Attila Csihar. Since returning to the fold a decade ago the Hungarian frontman has shaped MAYHEM very much around his skills, and what skills they are. His distinctly Eastern European vocal approach sets MAYHEM apart even if they are considered archetypal of the Norwegian black metal scene, demonstrated most perfectly in De Mysteriis’ closing title track as his operatic Latin wailing rises through the cacophony and reverberates around the venue, set against shrieks and moans that are simply inhuman. Csihar certainly barely looks human, donning makeup that goes beyond goofy corpse paint and into genuinely unsettling and rotten territory, weaving through the smoke with disconcerting jerky movements while licking and caressing a skull in suitably grotesque fashion. The downside of tonight is that they do just play De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas with no other areas of their career explored, so fans hoping for Deathcrush classics or cuts from their phenomenal last album Esoteric Warfare are left disappointed. De Mysteriis though stands tall to this day. For one of the most prominent names in the black metal scene who many fans of the genre may listen to as one of their very first black metal bands, it’s amazing how challenging and terrifying MAYHEM still feel and when channelling the energies of this record the result is beautifully hellish. At the same time, there is a vibe tonight of positivity and gratitude as people know full well that tonight may not have happened if not for the hard work of those involved. It’s a shining example of how when bickering is put aside how fantastic the metal community can be, rewarded with a stunning show by a timeless band. Temples may be gone for now, but that’s a feeling that sticks around for a good long while.