Review by Jonathan Smith; photos by Albert Mansour
Within minutes of entering the Opera House, my fellow concert-goer and I were warned about the smell. Not the smell of rotting butcher shop remnants, as previous reviews and internet buzz had warned us would be present on this, the last stop of the tour. Instead, we were told that someone had thrown up right in the middle of the venue not too long before our arrival. The sickly smell of vomit hanging in the air was, we would learn, a coincidental precursor to what was to come once Swedish black metallers Watain took to the stage. With that as a greeting, we proceeded to get rid of our coats and get reacquainted with the venue’s drink selection before settling in for the long show. Due to only an average crowd attendance, we were more or less easily able to navigate the floor and have our pick of vantage points then and throughout the whole evening.
Since we bused in from out of town, we were just able to catch the final ringing chords and blast-beats of North Bay’s Empyrean Plague (a band who, despite their frequent appearances on Toronto bills, I still haven’t seen). Next up were locals Panzerfaust. While the thundering of their drums initially drowned out their guitar riffs, their corpse-painted faces and full-on black metal aesthetics set the evening’s mood for me. Of all the bands playing that night, they were the ones who most closely matched the vibe that Watain would create later on.
Where as Panzerfaust’s performance was methodical and visually garish, New York-based Black Anvil were the opposite — with a minimum amount of theatrics and a cut-to-the-chase approach, they blasted through out their fast-paced set. Performing one after another, with Panzerfaust’s bombastic invocations of blasphemy and sonic intensity compared to Black Anvil’s more thrash-y, rock ‘n roll approach, the different dispositions of the two bands almost seemed to embody a separation of the two different sides of the headliners.
Louisiana’s Goatwhore rounded out the support, delivering an intense and extremely professional performance that, despite my enjoying them in the past, nonetheless seemed to go on a little too long. Maybe it was because of the frequency of their performances in Toronto, or maybe it was because their hard-hitting, no-visuals, minimalist approach to blackened metal seemed out of place in the context of the whole show. Or maybe it was because they were unavoidably overshadowed by my and others’ expectations regarding the main event. Even during Goatwhore’s set, more than one person leaned over to me and remarked that it was starting to smell bad down toward the stage.
Toronto didn’t get the whole Watain package. The infamous pig heads on pikes, carried across the whole country, were not to seen (probably much to some people’s relief), nor was the rumoured copious amounts of animal blood used. As it was, the stage’s setup was that of a black mass, including an altar in front of the drumset. Copious candles were lit, one by one, and finally the band emerged from the smoke machine-induced haze. Opening, as anticipated, with Lawless Darkness‘s “Malfeitor,” Watain proceeded to tear through their set. Almost immediately, the smell reached us, an olfactory nightmare that seemed to be mixture of kerosene, incense, burning meat, and unwashed bodies. It was, as Hellbound’s Natalie Zed remarked dryly, “a layered smell.” I never did find out what it was like down at the front of the stage. The Opera House was divided into two groups — those that were pressed together in rows right up front, and the rest of the people spread out across the floor.
By the time that Watain ended their set with the well-played epic “Waters of Ain” (one of the best black metal songs I’ve heard live in ages), it felt like a certain amount of restlessness had fallen upon the crowd. The obligations of regular life were clearly calling to many, and when Watain played their last notes, the exodus began almost immediately. Lingering behind, however, I watched vocalist Erik Danielsson slip back into his black robe and perform the show’s last rites as ambient music swelled. It was a subtle touch (he was barely visible behind the haze), but a moment that hammered home the fact that with Watain, there is no division between style and substance. Far from invoking the more alienating or shoe-gazing aspects of black metal, they invited the audience into their circle with their high-energy antics. They are, at their core, rock and roll at its extreme margins — noisy, nasty, problematic, maybe even unpredictable. It was all as they had promised, and we could take it or leave it.