Noctis Valkyries 5: Hell Comes To Cowtown

By Kyle Harcott

This year’s Noctis V festival in Calgary was an epic long weekend of metal: Twenty-one bands over three headbanging nights. And during the day, a conference of metal-centric panels where some of the scene’s best and brightest converged in intelligent, informed discussion about the industry and its current state. Absolutely everything about the fest was top-notch. Terese Fleming and her Scarab Productions crew put on a hell of a great time, working their collective ass off to ensure everything went so smoothly.

Seriously, I can’t rave enough about how pro this fest was, and how amazing a time seemed to be had by all involved. If you are looking for a great weekend of metal at the end of September, come to Calgary. If the rumors I am already hearing about Noctis 666 are true, it will be the do-not-miss, Canadian metal event of the year in 2013.

Here are my personal highlights from the whirlwind three-day festival:

Night One, Thursday was the fest’s kickoff show at The Distillery, a 600-capacity downstairs bar in the heart of downtown Calgary. An awesome venue for metal gigs, The Distillery has a great stage, and a sunken floor down in front of it, just the right size for a pit. While many attendees would not be getting into town until Friday, Thursday’s show was still quite well-attended, everyone getting sharpened up and ready for a weekend of fist-banging mania.

Hoopsnake rules, okay? Dirty, weed-fueled Squamsludge at its finest, the three-piece roared and howled with deep-woods fury, their wall of oppressive sound an impressive opener to kick off the fest. I’m kicking myself for only having discovered these guys recently – and that I had to come all the way to Calgary to finally see them live. But as we all well know, dirtsludge three-pieces rule, and our local boys did Noctis proud, the floor filling up quick with headbobbing hesh.

Between sets, I grabbed a tallboy of Lucky (cheap!), and headed over to check out merch, as well as browse the impressive War On Music vinyl booth. Somehow I managed to barely restrain myself from just handing over Charley my wallet, but it was a challenge! He’d brought in a TON of amazing vinyl, all of it refreshingly fair-priced. I also hit up Speedwolf’s merch table, because I promised myself I would score one of their made-special-for-Noctis “Canada 666” shirts. It (and most bands’ shirts at the fest) was going for the ludicrously-reasonable price of $15.

The mighty Speedwolf were the band I was mostly there to see this first night, and they delivered the goods. From their first amphetaminized note, the boys walked it like they talk it: lean, mean, and nothing to prove. A powerhouse set throughout, the first pit of the night erupted during “I Am The Demon”, and didn’t let up from there. Speedwolf also debuted Two! New! Songs! during their Noctis set (the one title I caught was ‘Begging For Cocaine”), and both new songs went over horrorshow, the moshpit only ramping up in frenzy for new tunes. Later, the band also treated us to a gargantuan cover of Motörhead’s “Iron Fist”, before winding down their white-knuckle set with a special north-of-the-border version of “Denver 666” which had us all yelling “Canada 666!” at the top of our lungs. Speedwolf were, as expected, far and away my favorite part of Thursday night. After their set, their merch table was doing brisk business, “Canada 666” shirts selling like hotcakes.

Next up, we were treated to an incredible set from Blood Ceremony, making their first and long-overdue Western Canadian appearance. Opening with a magnificent “The Great God Pan”, the Toronto doomsters rocked us through a fantastic set made up mostly of songs from 2011’s Living With The Ancients. Singer Alia O’Brien is highly animated onstage. Moving wraithlike, her poses recall the best of Ronnie James Dio, conjuring all sorts of unseen invisible oranges whenever she didn’t have a flute in her hand. An impressive set, Blood Ceremony’s finale was a blazing, moody take on “Oliver Haddo”. Convinced I’d seen the best of the night, I skipped out on the djent of The Contortionist. For the fest kickoff, Thursday was a hell of a warm-up, and it was only the beginning. Shit would only get crazier from here on out.

Day Two’s festival welcome party at the Ramada was an awesome start to Friday’s proceedings, with a panel discussion on the future of extreme metal, followed by interviews with author Joel McIvor and the one and only Cronos, who told some excellent old-days stories. It was also awesome to finally meet and hang out with Adrien Begrand, and put a face to the name I’ve been reading for years!

Of course, typical of my luck, dinner ran late and I didn’t make it to the Distillery until after the opening set from my buds in Vancouver’s Anciients (sorry dudes!), who started at 7PM sharp. I have it on good authority, though, that their set brought the house down and absolutely killed, winning kudos from the likes of GorgutsLuc Lemay and members of Venom, and also further cementing Anciients’ reputation as The Canadian Metal Band To Watch In 2013.

Vancouver’s Archspire were up next, relentlessly br00tal techdeath with jaw-clenching vokills, white-knuckled fingertaps, and morse-code/stop-start arpeggiating like there was no tomorrow. Now, I’m usually the last guy to champion anything remotely related to the words “technical death metal”, but damn if Archspire didn’t impress the hell out of me with their technique, playing circles around each other in absolute precision. Singer Oli Peters is a raging front man, oldschool Suffocation-style all the way, and I lost count of the strings on Jaron Evil’s bass. An absolutely punishing set from these guys.

I’ll be first to admit, Tempe’s Psychostick were the total headscratcher of the evening’s bill for me; turns out their comedy-metal shtick has a following in Calgary, lots of people stoked for their first Noctis appearance. First impressions seemed to confirm my doubts: Psychostick made their way onstage in all manner of ridiculous headwear, including a a four-foot-span foam moose-antlers on bass player Matt Rzemyk, and some sort of tinfoil liberty-spikes dome on vocalist Rawrb Kersey. I rolled my eyes through most of their set, as they played one goofy groove-metal song after another, each invariably about beer, boobs, and uh, more beer. But then, nearing the end of their set, they played “The Sombrero Song”, wherein a sombrero was produced, then handed to the self-proclaimed Toughest Motherfucker in the Pit. Everyone else in the pit was then instructed to get that guy and tear said hat to shreds. In spite of myself, I laughed out loud watching all the hammerheads waging war to get their piece of the hat. And though I didn’t exactly rush out to buy Psychostick’s back catalog afterward, the gimmick made for some good, clean, toxic-waltz fun.

But– Friday night was all about Midnight for me. This was their third year asked back to a festival known for refusing to repeat-invite bands, and I say goddamn it, bring ‘em back every year! Ripping open their set with a blazing ‘Satanic Royalty’, the hooded threesome played a raucous (if too short) set comprised about half from Satanic Royalty, half earlier gems like ‘All Hail Hell’, and ‘Endless Slut’. Midnight’s live show is a fucking roaring ball of hell, akin to watching Lord Humungus fronting a band called Motörvenom – and the floor of the Distillery reflected it, one massive writhing pit for the length of Midnight’s set (especially the feeding frenzy during “Violence on Violence” and “I Am Violator”). Forget your djent and your lopsided haircuts, kiddies – black hoods, bullet belts and chainsaw guitars are all you need – trust me. Midnight were miles better than I had hoped they’d be, and I hoped for a lot. Seriously hope to see them brought back for Noctis 666.

It would take an exceptional band to pull off following a set like Midnight’s, but no less a band than Manilla Road took to the stage next, – and reigned triumphant as the true oldschool metal royalty they are. Mark Shelton, Bryan Patrick & co. were in fine form, and they steamed through a 75-minute set of classics like ‘Road Of Kings’ and ‘Necropolis’. Shelton’s guitar playing is downright caustic, and it was amazing to finally get to see him wield that BC Rich Warlock live in person. Manilla Road were absolutely legendary, and their leveling finale of ‘Crystal Logic’ brought the house down.

Alas, no Pig Destroyer for me (I was dead on my feet partway through Manilla Road’s set) but next-day reports from the trenches informed me I had seriously missed out: PxDx played an indomitable set, an extremely special and rare performance from the grind masters who came all the way from DC. The Noctis crowd didn’t take it for granted, though, as camera phones were at the ready for such a special treat.

Day Three’s morning metal breakfast brought out a few dozen bleary-eyed trve, but the afternoon’s informative and entertaining conference was buzzing with people. Of particularly inspiration was the keynote address given by Martin Atkins (Pigface, ex-Ministry), who offered much sage music-industry advice to bands trying to find their way in the biz.

I arrived at the Ramada in time for a panel discussing Banzai Records -a great discussion between Adrien Begrand, Dan “Danzai” Neild, J.P. Wood, and panel host Clennon Aranha– on the label’s legacy, where and how much to pay for collectible Banzai releases across varied formats, the origin of the “speed metal swirl”, and which releases on the label were serious missteps. It was definitely the kind of in-depth discussion that could have gone on far longer then the allotted hour span.

Next we got an interview with Mark Shelton and Manilla Road, who not only told lots of great tales from their storied history, they also had nothing but effusive praise for the Noctis festival and its organizer, Terese Fleming. To their credit, the legendary Manilla Road were there at every gig of the festival, hanging out and partying with the rest of the punters, and they had major praise for a lot of the bands they had seen and partied with over the previous two nights. It was loads of fun seeing them hang out throughout the weekend.

Finally, there was a fun, three-way battle royale panel, arguing the legacies of Motörhead versus Slayer versus Sodom. Chuck Keller from Ares Kingdom representing Sodom, author Joel McIvor backing Slayer, and metal scholar Dr. Matt Donohue repping Motörhead. Topics ranged, pitting the bands’ back catalogues, legacies, and missteps against each other, and it was a fun discussion. While Sodom may have garnered the most applause from the scattered crowd, everyone in their right mind knows Motörhead wins that battle hands-down!

Once the conference ended, Mr. Begrand and I grabbed a bite at Calgary’s famed Boogie’s Burgers, a great little greasy spoon café in the Renfrew neighborhood. Then it was off to the final gig, the big one at the University’s MacEwan Hall. After some navigation/parking escapades at the University, we finally entered Mac Hall partway through the set from Germany’s Excrementory Grindfuckers, who seemed very excited to be unleashing their Teutonic grindthrash upon the Noctis throng, and North America, for the first time. The band came across as very upbeat, peppy thrash, and pretty much every song in the set was either German-titled, or featured the word “grindcore” in it. To close their set, their last two songs were covers and reflected the fun they were having: The Sweet’s retitled “Grindcore Blitz”, and of course, everybody’s favorite Europe song, “The Final Grinddown”.

Florida’s Black Witchery were up next to put an end to any fun, and waged hellish wrath onstage. They were a crushing wall of brimstone-stinking black metal blast. Becloaked, bathed in smoke and red light only, the evil ones panzercrushed their way through a vicious set of Satan-hailing kriegsmetall like “Blasphemous Onslaught” and laid waste to the legion of maniacs in the pit. As the fest’s sole aesthetic heirs to the legacy of Venom, Black Witchery’s riproaring sonic blasphemy was a welcome palate-cleanser to the previous band’s bouncy fungrind.

Between sets, I headed out to the hallway to check the merch situation, only to find that the majority of it was almost entirely wiped – by 7PM! A plague of merch-hungry, metal-starved Calgarian locusts had descended, and my hopes of getting a vinyl copy of Agalloch’s Faustian Echoes were long gone. Another particularly hot property was the Noctis-exclusive Black Witchery shirt, which read something like “Raping Christ’s Dominion over Canada”, as I recall. And, for some inexplicable reason, Grand Magus had zero merch on offer for their first-ever North American show., which was a shame, because they would have sold a TON.

“I got three rules: One, life sucks. Two, metal rules. Three, WE HATE CHRISTIANS!!!” Nunslaughter were one of my favorite sets of the entire fest. Managing to combine the best of both worlds, oldschoool blackthrash devil metal with a wicked sense of humor, they had the crowd going off throughout their set – “I Hate Christians” a particularly huge hit early on. Drummer Jim Sadist, he of the hellish cackle and inverted-cross drumstick pose, kept up the christbaiting hilarity between songs, while the rest of Nunslaughter kept it gnarly, snarling and thrashing through tracks like “Killed By The Cross”, “Smell The Burning Churches”, “Fuck the Bastard”, and “Obsessed With the Visions of a Satanic Priest”. Nunslaughter were a wicked mix of blasphemy/comedy, with chops for days; another one of those bands that were going to be a tough act to follow.

But Grand Magus gave ‘em hell in their debut North American set, stealing the show with an incredibly powerful set of classic, traditional heavy metal. Coming out onstage to Basil Poledouris’ “Anvil of Crom”, the trio thundered out of the gate with “Kingslayer” and “Like The Oar Strikes The Water” and just kept roaring with no let-up. JB Christoffersson and Fox Heden held the Noctis crowd rapt, trading off guitar/bass harmonies and lead vocals, while Ludwig Witt drove them on from behind his kit. A glorious Viking sing-along graced the climax of “Hammer of the North”, and the crowd raised horns in reverence. Grand Magus brought the house down with a finale of “Iron Will”, and they seemed genuinely grateful for the response of the crowd, who sang along to every word. Here’s hoping they’re back on our shores for a proper tour soon.

After missing their Vancouver gig in July, I was excited to finally get to see Agalloch. They were mesmerizing, weaving meticulous, cinematic opuses throughout a set rich with early songs. Starting with “Dead Winter Days”, the Portland four-piece were enchanting. Layering riff after Cascadian black metal riff through songs like “Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor”, and “You Were but a Ghost In My Arms”, Agalloch played their hearts out for Calgary, and the crowd responded in kind. Bringing the house down with a cover of Sol Invictus’ “Kneel to the Cross”, Agalloch’s set was a force to be reckoned with.

Due to my earlier parking misadventures, I had no choice but to leave Mac Hall near the end of Agalloch’s set, only to find out the hard way about a ludicrous “no in-outs” rule by the U of C security (even for a member of the media covering the event) – so yes, I blew it and missed out on Venom’s set completely; a particularly huge disappointment after later finding out that their set was entirely comprised of classics (seriously, name your favorite Venom song and they played it). And not only was the set all classic material, I’m told Cronos is still in fine form, his voice still the legendary ugly gurgle we all know and love. Disappointment aside, though, the rest of the night was so incredible, I still left the university with a smile on my face, knowing I had seen some once-in-a-lifetime performances over the weekend.

I cannot stress how fantastic it was to attend Noctis V. To get to see three nights of amazing shows from a lot of bands who would never come to this part of the world otherwise; to spend afternoons rubbing elbows with those same bands, esteemed members of the metal literati, and like-minded fans, all of us just there to bask in the glory of metal, welcome and free to discuss the music we love so much with people just like us. It just might be that Calgary is the new metal capital of Canada, and you can (and should, profusely!) thank Terese Fleming for that. If there is a Noctis 666 next September (and I really hope there is), you can damn sure bet I’ll be there – so I’d recommend you make the trip as well. Who wants to split a room at the Ramada?

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.