For the second year in a row, the Messe des Morts black metal festival welcomed early winter to the city with the reek of blood and brimstone and the echoing furor of blast beats. The event has expanded in scope from its inaugural year, branching out from the much-loved heavy music venue Katacombes to also include the much larger Théâtre Plaza. Messe des Morts has struck an excellent balance between bringing high-profile international bands to Montreal (many of them performing in North America for the very first time) and showcasing the best of Quebec's scene, demonstrating that the black metal in the province is world-class.
On Thursday, the opening night of Messe des Morts took place at the Katacombes, which prominently features a carved pillar of skulls and walls painted to resemble the underground catacombs of Paris. Verglas kicked off the show, the vocalist often making the audience wince with his high-pitched keening, as intense as the wails of a Nazgul in pain. Toronto duo Sortilegia manifested a very different energy: their drummer channelled a primal, carnal energy, while their vocalist and guitarist embodied something more languid and intimately casual, as though we were watching the devil jam in her living room.
Warrack performed double duty that night, playing the next set with Toronto's Thantifaxath as well. Hooded and cloaked, the experimental group followed the riffs and series of chord progressions through many permutations of texture and ferocity, allowing the sound to transform, while the drumming formed a powerful engine that buoyed the music and bore it up. Finland's Archgoat, playing in Canada for the first time, performed a set dominated by throbbing chords and a circular yet evolving song structures. Their corpse paint looked like deep pits carved around their eyes, and the glistening blood poured down their chests like they'd just ripped something's throat out with their teeth. Their set changed the energy in the room entirely: whereas the audience had been almost meditative before, headbanging thoughtfully, they then suddenly erupted into violence.
On Friday, Messe des Morts moved to bigger and more formal venue, Théâtre Plaza. Though the doors opened early at 5 p.m., the venue began to fill immediately, so that openers Haeres had a small crowd for their tight and minimalist set, as did the fuzzed-out and scouring tones of Scum Sentinel. Toronto's Panzerfaust, meanwhile, displayed that sometimes impression you make matters more than individual musical virtuosity, and while none of the band's individual elements stood up much to scrutiny, taken together the calamitous noise worked well.
Making their North American debut, Norway's Isvind performed a set of classic Norwegain black metal with distinctly pagan elements, their tone all wire whip and hacksaw. Germany's Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult earned many fans during their first trip to Canada, displaying fantastic energy and a genuine sense of danger and diabolic intent. Frontwoman Onielar was striking, her voice a scraping rasp. She fill her mouth with blood and sprayed some out at the audience, then let the rest roll out of her mouth, soaking her throat and the front of her shirt in a powerful and bestial gesture. French band Seth, also playing their first North American show, brought melodic black metal under painfully strobing lights.
The headliner of the night was the legendary Revenge, who despite being from Alberta were playing their first Canadian show. Revenge were all flourish, as histrionics, solos, freak-outs and crescendos knitted together with a few solid grooves. The result was a perfect storm of intense energy, allowing the rubbed-raw, wild intensity in the crowd to expend itself in an eruption of glorious excess.
On Saturday, the show continued at Théâtre Plaza, though a slight was cast over the proceedings as news that Poland's Mgla were unable to make it across the border due to an unforeseen technicality, despite appeals to the Canadian embassy. Nevertheless, the mood was still extremely positive, and venue filled up quickly for openers Sarcomancy's crusty, vile-toned set. Quebec's Mortuas brought a touch of the grave and funeral to their performance, a kind of deadly weight. And Toronto's Sylvus performed an excellent set, their heathen black metal vibrating with energy, executed with precision and ferocity. Frontman Darcy Ibson was exultant, snarling and raising his hands to the crowd, feeding off their energy.
Conversely, Quebec's Neige Éternelle were more restrained than usual, forgoing their usual set dressing of spruce branches, though their rich frosted tone remained unchanged. Black Witchery raised the energy in the room to a feverish state, their squalling, abrasive sound slamming into the audience like a raw wind. Beslimed and filthy, Norway's Ragnarok become monsters during their headlining set, their first on North American soil, lurching and writhing around the stage. Their grotesque lasciviousness and sonic brutality made it easy to image they've been belched forth from some infernal pit; it was perfect.
Messe des Morts is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most well-organized and exciting underground metal festivals in the country, and the event's stellar second instalment proved why.