By Adrien Begrand
What makes Primordial such an interesting band is that it’s been such a long, steady climb for them. Amazingly, it wasn’t until their fifth album The Gathering Wilderness, ten years after their debut and 18 years after forming in Dublin, Ireland, that they found themselves musically. Before that it had been a very slow formative period, in large part because it was very difficult for them to play regular shows in their home country, let alone the UK and Europe. As they touch on in the two hour documentary “Gods to the Godless” on their new DVD, a band can only evolve so much while living on an island (in their case, both physically and creatively); you have to get out. You need experience, to get that road experience, to play shows and, to put it simply, get better at your craft. So it comes as no surprise that after the band started to tour with some semblance of regularity after 2000 that was when they started to make some serious musical strides after merely hinting at potential.
By the time the brilliant To the Nameless Dead came out in 2007, Primordial was starting to peak, both creatively and from a critical standpoint as well, and after a series of festival performances in Europe and a very successful North American tour in 2009, the band is set to make a serious splash with their forthcoming seventh record. But since that release is still in the planning stages, there’s no better time to cash in on their heightened profile in metal with a stopgap release, and they’ve come up with a fine one in the double-disc All Empires Fall. Comprised of the aforementioned documentary, live festival clips from 2008, and a triumphant complete 2009 performance, it’s a good four-plus hours’ worth of pagan metal proselytizing that anyone in their steadily growing fanbase won’t want to be without.
Filmed at Dublin’s cozy Button Factory in January 2009, the performance on disc one is the big draw on this DVD. As those of us who caught Paganfest last year are well aware, Primordial are a phenomenal live band, led by the charismatic, powerhouse vocalist Alan “Nemtheanga” Averill, and their performance in front of their hometown crowd is scorching. The 13 song set spans their entire discography, including “Fuil Ársa” from the debut Imrama, the title track from 1998’s A Journey’s End, and “Gods to the Godless” from 2000’s Spirit the Earth Aflame, but considering their career trajectory, it’s no surprise that the strongest moments are during the songs culled from The Gathering Wilderness and To the Nameless Dead. The quintet sounds masterful on such rousing epics as “Empire Falls”, “Heathen Tribes”, and “As Rome Burns”, the set’s biggest highlight the impassioned reading of the elegiac “The Coffin Ships”.
For those interested in high-definition clarity and the kind of close-ups that allow you to study the guitar work or drumming, however, you’re out of luck. Instead, the director chooses to go for mood rather than simply showing a band play onstage, and as a result we get shots that are often soft-focused and filtered, giving the concert a hazy, almost monochrome feel. For a band like Primordial, it works very well, playing up the mystique of the music, not to mention the persona of the face-painted Averill.
Conversely, the feature-length “Gods to the Godless” documentary on the second disc is all about stripping away the band’s mystique completely. Comprised of interviews at a pub table with an unending supply of pints of Guinness, it’s as no-frills as you can get, as the band goes into great detail about their history, from 1987 to 2010. And by “band”, I mean Averill, who when not letting guitarist Ciáran MacUiliam quietly elaborate, talks, and talks, and talks from beginning to end. The man loves to talk. Thankfully he’s one of the more eloquent frontmen in all of metal, and as a result he’s never dull. That said, the simplicity and straightforward approach of the documentary does drag a bit, although we are treated to a few archived video clips from the days when the band wore corpsepaint (though some die-hard fans will be disappointed that the old footage isn’t available as a DVD extra feature). In addition, the 12 pro-shot clips from the various 2008 festivals are adequate enough, albeit a touch redundant after the triumphant Dublin set.
It so happens that changes are afoot in the Primordial camp, as talented drummer Simon O’Laoghaire is no longer in the band. That’s unlikely to stop Primordial from scratching and clawing their way to even higher heights on the next album. Besides, these plucky Irish dudes have come too far in too long a time to stop now. If All Empires Fall is meant to close a certain chapter of the band’s history, we have every reason to believe the next one will be even more exciting to witness.