There are moments when you suddenly understand popular culture's perception of heavy metal as something dark, grimy, profane and grotesque. The moment the audience walked into the Opera House, they were assaulted by the sweet, throat-clinging odour of rotting blood and the sour reek of brimstone. Whenever Swedish black metal band Watain play anywhere, they bring with them their smell. While the Opera House bans them from actually covering the stage in blood and hunks of rotting flesh, their gear, clothes and bodies still carry the stink of it. It's easy to see, at moments like this, how heavy metal makes some folks of milder tastes clutch their pearls in terror.
The performances themselves began on a much less intense note than one would have expected from the "atmosphere," as fellow Swedes, In Solitude, preferred to play accompanied by incense rather than offal. Their set was characterized by an incredibly strong rhythm section, the guitarists allowing the bass player to step to the fore as the most dynamic string-slinger while their drummer viciously attacked his kit.
Next, the Devil's Blood upped the ante considerably. Throughout their set, they maintained strict control over the energy in the room, sculpting it to their will, alternately antagonizing the audience with tension before finally allowing them an ecstatic, frenzied musical release. The band bill themselves as "horror soul," which is apt but cannot fully convey the richness of their sound. Inspired by psychedelic '70s rock, they are equally comfortable playing downtempo grooves and frantic occult rock. Vocalist Farida has an powerful, soaring voice that sounds like nothing so much as infernal gospel. The audience was left wishing their set, drawn primarily from The Thousandfold Epicentre, could have been longer.
Soon, however, the stage was strewn with sconces made from goat skulls, smoking evilly, and Watain began their ritual. They began their set with "Malfeitor," and soon had the crowd whipped into a maelstrom of violence. Vocalist Erik Danielsson writhed and contorted his body, his voice welling up from the darkest part of him and joining the harrowing buzz of the guitars in an awful cacophony. When they played "Total Funeral," the entire floor in front of the stage had become a pit as ears and bodies were similarly besmirched with filth.
Then, headliners Behemoth took the stage, and the energy in the room was transformed once again. The Polish black metal titans have been through a great deal in the last few years, as frontman Adam "Nergal" Darski has battled leukemia. After intensive treatment and a bone marrow transplant, Nergal is finally on the mend; this tour marks the first time Behemoth has performed internationally since his 2010 diagnosis.
Nergal positively radiated power, his lean, high-cheekboned face beneath the corpse paint somehow regal. Each thundering blast of the drums seemed a defiant heartbeat, each chord a vital affirmation. As Behemoth began to play "Conquer All," Nergal stepped forward and roared, "It feels so good to be alive!" The room hushed for a split second, and a shiver passed through the crowd. Then, with an audible, collective intake of breath, the audience screamed back a savage, weeping, life-affirming howl.