The 16 Performances That Impacted Me in 2016

I attended quite a few shows in 2016. While this is a list of seventeen performances that absolutely pushed me towards my own creativity, I feel that only sixteen fully qualify. The final inclusion on this list is a band that could’ve likely put on a bad show (spoiler: they didn’t) and I’d have still been moved on some level. Because comparing and qualifying experiences at concerts is nearly impossible, this list is in no particular order.  Each of these bands inspired me, delighted me, challenged me, or simply put on such a fantastic live performance that I felt an excitement I don’t often feel. This doesn’t mean that other acts I caught in 2016 were any less vital. Indeed, this list could’ve easily doubled in size without any chaff, but I won’t allow this to grow cumbersome and tedious.

 

The first act that warrants inclusion and attention is one I’ve followed for years without a glimmer of hope that I’d see them live. Tollund Men has long been close to my heart, but I’ll be the first to admit I was uncertain whether the bare, painful nature of their recordings would translate properly live. It was a true delight to catch a brief yet potent set in August as Tollund Men was invited to open for Clan of Xymox at one of two Portland, OR dates. No footage of the show exists, but I was lucky enough to get a copy of Tollund Men’s live tape featuring songs from this year’s album, Autoerotik. A friend of mine has uploaded the tape’s audio in the video above. It’s everything you’d expect and more. Check it out.

As with a few other acts on this list, I was fortunate enough to watch Sleeping With the Earth perform more than once. There’s something of a balance of focus and chaos when Sleeping With the Earth takes the stage. He monitors his setup with care and grace, yet creates sounds that transcend the norm and has a presence that is jarring, even within the realm of noise and power electronics. The degree of motion and force in his sets made his inclusion nearly mandatory, as both his performance opening for Hive Mind in April and at VTHQ in June (admittedly, at my own birthday show) were highly memorable experiences for me.

Few experiences in my life as a fan of heavy metal have been as intense or gripping as witnessing a portion of Oranssi Pazuzu’s set at Roadburn 2016. I spent nearly half their set in line to get in to the venue, which was at its capacity. In essence, I caught one song that stretched over fifteen minutes in length. You know the one. This alone was enough to get me to revisit their newest album, which I’d not really given a chance at that point. I’m thrilled that Oranssi Pazuzu will be returning to share with us again this coming April, because I really felt I’d witnessed part of something special. I can’t wait to see it in its complete state.

There are few noise acts I’ve been able to follow as they grow and shift in the way I’ve kept up with Purity of Essence. I purchased the project’s first demo tape when this website was in its own infancy and I knew nearly nothing about noise as a genre. Some years later, I became friends with the founding member and his bandmate and partner and finally had the delight of watching Purity of Essence’s debut show as a two-piece. Without fully derailing into collegiate performance art, they incorporate evocative presence into their dynamic as they play. My first Purity of Essence gig was the night before I was to receive some very severe medical news and their set helped me remain focused. It was so essential that I invited the pair to play at my birthday gig with the aforementioned Sleeping With the Earth. Watch my (admittedly shaky) video above and see for yourself.

One thing that really defined my concert experiences in 2016 was that I had the good fortune of watching many bands who were performing before I was even born. While Crash Course in Science was a new name to me when a good friend introduced me earlier this year, I was no less impressed by their live set at Saint Vitus. Their brand of experimental industrial walked the line between dance and post-punk with a heavy hand of scathing electronics, yet the band’s demeanor onstage was friendly and charismatic. It was a refreshing balance, as the sincerity of this music often seems dependent on a band’s ability to remain stern and cold. The liveliness and energy put out by Crash Course in Science was anything but cold and it was the kind of gig that left me wanting to start a band the moment I left.

It’s no secret that I try to use Black Metal & Brews as a platform to celebrate cutting edge bands. If you’ve read my writing about Yellow Eyes, you’re aware I’ve long championed them. After years of pushing the band’s music out to my small audience, I witnessed them start to get some well deserved attention from larger outlets in the last year or two and was finally able to catch them live. I almost always wear ear protection at shows so that I can enjoy some sort of longevity with my musical experiences, but I went without for my first Yellow Eyes experience. It was blistering, forceful, and every bit as impassioned as I would have hoped. From the frantic leads of brothers Sam and Will Skarstad to the frighteningly commanding presence of drummer Michael Rekevics, every element of a Yellow Eyes set is simultaneously tight and unpredictable.

This article could have easily been sixteen performances from Roadburn, but I’m trying not to let my enthusiasm get the better of me. Still, one of the most intense shows I’ve witnessed in my entire life was the Úlfsmessa performance at Het Patronaat as part of this year’s Roadburn. For ninety minutes, members of the different Vánagandr acts shared the stage wearing hoods and robes so as to remove focus from individual identities and place emphasis on atmosphere and ritual as they shape-shifted between songs from each of the acts involved. The word “ritual” is often tossed around casually in black metal as an easy coverall and means of bestowing some sort of credibility, but in this case it feels more appropriate. I can’t fully describe the performance, but the feeling will never escape me.

Body of Light is one of those bands that just gets better with time. I often expect that their next release might be the one in which they make a stylistic shift I don’t entirely understand. Instead, their performances become cleaner and more potent, with the Jarson brothers guiding the audience brilliantly from dance to melancholy and right back up again. Catching Body of Light both shortly before and after the release of Let Me Go yielded two different and wonderful sets (both on stacked bills, as well). If they keep touring behind such strong material and with such strong live presence, it’s no doubt they’ll be receiving (more) attention from the press in a serious way.

Somewhere in a list of bands I never expected to see live, much like Tollund Men, is Vilkacis. While on recording Vilkacis is the solo project of Michael Rekevics, the live incarnation serves as something of a who’s-who of House of First Light-related artists.  This uniquely confrontational brand of self-described “black metal as spiritual war” is breathtaking, to put it lightly. The only downside of watching Vilkacis at Eternal Warfare Fest in September was that their performance occurred at an early hour, causing many unfortunate attendees to miss out. I hope that the next time Vilkacis tours they’ll play to a packed house in any city they visit.

Among the legends I caught in 2016 was Diamanda Galas. To try to describe her performance would be an exercise in grasping at the incomprehensible. I could explain her playing itself, but that would fall short. All familiar with her work know her proficiency as a pianist and her range as a singer, yet these are cold facts that do little justice to the staggering reality of her work. I almost feel that her performance at Roadburn is best summed up by her short, sneering “ha!” that she shot back at a heckler’s attempt at humor. The barbs, the confidence, and the overall power of her presence were hypnotic and her music was simultaneously erratic and fluid as it filled the massive venue. Simply put, she’s a must-see.

As the grand finale of Eternal Warfare Fest, the year’s best underground black metal festival, Mortuary Drape did more than deliver upon a legacy of pitch black perfection. Clad in vaguely monastic outfits and corpsepaint (except for the singer, whose face was never revealed), the band decimated with energy unseen in many bands far younger. From the confident performance to a fantastic live sound, every aspect of Mortuary Drape’s set was deeper and richer than I’d expected from this classic act. I knew I’d enjoy it for nostalgic purposes. I had no idea I’d find myself so invigorated after an entire weekend of long days and loud music. If there’s one legacy black metal band touring right now that can deliver the goods, it’s got to be these guys.

Of all the music I cherish, the overall umbrella of post-punk has been my favorite since childhood. This leads me towards a certain sort of pickiness rather than an all-consuming urge to listen to it indiscriminately. Brooklyn-based trio Bootblacks delivered the goods so skillfully when I saw them in early October that I elected to see them again not three weeks later. Both performances were equally artful and heartfelt, with no one member dominating the sound or feel of the show. From hard-hitting and consistent drumming to textured guitar spirals and commanding vocals, everybody brought something vital to the sound. It’s also helpful that their latest album is one of the year’s finest, as you might see in my impending list of great albums from 2016.

While not historically one of the more heavily discussed bands from the Black Twilight Circle, Blue Hummingbird on the Left was easily the most moving for me to witness at Eternal Warfare Fest. From droning ambiance and ritualistic instrumentals that carried the set in to the vicious and unhinged nature of their set itself, there was something far more feral and unpredictable to BHL than almost any black metal act I saw in 2016. Between such captivating performance and a flawless split with Volahn, I have a feeling far more eyes will be on Blue Hummingbird on the Left from this point onward.

In an enchanting style, King Woman caught me off guard with their brand of doom done right. With melancholy and tragedy carried along by the sheer weight of the music, the band delivered something so grounded and human that it was impossible not to get lost in it. Mega props to vocalist Kristina Esfandiari for playing on the floor instead of onstage, too. It brought a feeling akin to true underground or house gigs to the otherwise bustling Dante’s in Portland. The connection between audience and band was so strong it could practically be seen and it was impossible not to feel it. True champions.

I wrote some thousand plus words about my experience Enslaved just last month, but I’ll reiterate it here. They played two sets in one night, straddling twenty-five years of history. The effect was wholly inspirational and vital for me as a fan of the band in all of its stages of growth. If you have a chance to catch them, do it. They’re parting ways with their keyboardist but I expect they are incapable of compromising their standard of perfection in live performance.

Watching a legend like Silver Apples’ sole surviving member share his music in a small, packed club is a once in a lifetime experience. There was a sense of elation and excitement in both the artist and crowd as he shared both classic cuts and brand new material. The joy and enthusiasm were infectious and it was pretty impossible to keep from dancing while he played. The fusion of psychedelia and heavily rhythmic electronic music is not an easy one to achieve, yet this sets a blueprint for the future while standing the test of time itself.

I’m including my experience seeing The Cure on this list despite a complete inability to write from an impartial perspective. The Cure has been my favorite band since I was a child. As I grow older, this feeling is only strengthened. Shortly before my 29th birthday, I finally had the opportunity to see The Cure share a three-hour set of new, old, and even unreleased songs. I can’t put words to my experience in a way that would ever do it justice. I tried to write about it the day after and I failed. I fear that seven months later, it’s even more challenging. I was in tears from the second they took the stage and found myself in fluctuating states of emotion throughout the entire show. Songs like “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” and “Push” left me overcome with emotion while “This Twilight Garden” and “The Snakepit” caught me off guard and delighted something deep inside me that none of the greatest hits could have ever done. Knowing full well that The Cure’s set changes wildly from night to night on tour, it’s hard not to daydream about having the luxury of setting life aside to follow them and witness it every night. I know there’s an entire community of those who do. Perhaps in the year to come I’ll join them for a few shows. I can’t let this be a one-off. It was too beautiful and too perfect to leave behind.