Prepare the Ground Closed with Considered Catharsis

Lee's Palace and The Garrison, June 2

Ragana, Planning for Burial, Respire, KEN mode

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Jun 3, 2024

Prepare the Ground closed their inaugural fest's Sunday night across three venues, ending the three-day affair at Lee's Palace. The absolutely stacked final day necessitated inter-venue travel, with attendees (and this writer) undeterred by rain or distance.

At the Garrison, Winnipeg's KEN mode played their furious blend of sludgy, disturbing noise to an absolutely mesmerized (and to-the-door packed) audience. Throughout their set, guitarist-vocalist Jesse Matthewson made incredibly long, uncomfortable eye contact with audience members, eyes and veins bulging, while the band — Shane Matthewson on drums, Skot Hamilton on bass and backing vocals and multi-instrumentalist Kathryn Kerr — generated the torrent needed to deliver his bleak, poetic musings. Harrowing, intense and desperate, KEN mode pushed the boundaries of metal into the avant-garde, the free. Their performance was more akin to a confrontation, a battle where survival relied on your ability to give in to the calculated cacophony. Even the other bands watching from the sidelines headbanged and swayed, transfixed by the collective flagellation happening on stage. Matthewson wore a shirt that simply and cryptically read "Listen." The way KEN mode performs, it's impossible not to.

Hometown heroes Respire played their potent, transcendent blend of orchestral blackened skramz furiously and ferociously, but not before a plaintive piano intro lulled the audience into a false sense of chatty security. The band then launched into its tremendous cacophony, violin and drums crashing against a bass and triple guitar attack, with vocalists Rohan Lilauwala, Egin Kongoli and Darren Scarfo trading screams and shouts for the duration of their all-too-short set. Opening with perennial favourite "Bound," the song led to a wall of blistering noise and soaring violin, the band members swaying and flailing like a singular, multi-limbed organism. During "Cicatrice," the audience enthusiastically clapped along, before resuming their perpetual thrashing. With Lilauwala recently moving to Texas, Sunday offered a reunion of sorts for the band, who don't get to perform together as often as they used to. However, as Kongoli put it, "Whenever we get together, it's a special occasion." You're damn right it is. Melancholy, romantic and brutal, Respire always deliver a fraught, emotional performance, and Sunday was no exception. Their new album, Hiraeth, comes out in July, which means you already have a top 10 of the year to look forward to.

Thom Wasluck's (aka. Planning for Burial) swirling blend of ambient post-metal juxtaposes short, serene passages with swaths of crumbling feedback. With minimal instruments (but maximalist amps), Wasluck conjured swooning, deafening tones, letting notes ring and degrade over extended periods of frantic, meticulous strumming. His guitar's tremolo arm worked tirelessly throughout the set, the strings bending and decaying while Wasluck sang-screamed into the microphone. Lit by a single white light from below, he began the set in a surprisingly subdued fashion, multitracking his guitar and barely whispering the words. The sound grew, shimmering and overdriven, before programmed drums and a shaky electronic tone started overtaking everything. It felt like it would collapse at any moment, and it did, but only when Wasluck allowed it. After the 15-minute opener, the stunned crowd didn't even know when to clap. Often, he was so into it that he would walk away from the mic while singing, "headbanging" with his entire body and triggering sounds and pedals while leaning into every crushing note. Closing one's eyes, even for a second, meant being swallowed by the waves. He ended the set with a torrent of screeching feedback, slamming the guitar into the stage, swinging it off his neck and flinging it above his head, and shaking every bit of devastating sound out of it. Planning for Burial's music is difficult and overwhelming, but let it take you, and you'll be enveloped in a glacial blanket of melodic, distorted noise, happily lulling you into the blackened ether. 

And so, it's come to this: Ragana performing one of 2023's best albums, the monolithic Desolation's Flower (no contest, and if you doubt it, gtfo). Bathed in perpetual red light, the band played the album with zeal and (dis)comfort, desperation and calm, casually switching instruments between songs and sharing vocal duties. They went from moments of quiet, string-picked reverie to towering feedback-and-distortion-drenched sections both tormented and cathartic. Album-and-set-opener "Desolation's Flower" started off quiet and plodding, the calm before the storm, exploding in tremendous fashion once singer/guitarist/drummer Coley's piercing vocals and pedals kicked in. A testament to queer and trans resistance and power, the song is both dense and open, complex and straightforward, much like the album itself.

During "Woe," the wrong guitar tuning forced them to stop and start over (coulda fooled us all), while singer/guitarist/drummer Maria's humble, apologetic response was entirely unwarranted, the immediate cheers from the crowd coming in loud and supportive. "Ruins" was similarly abruptly started and stopped, with Maria telling the audience that they'd never played the song before (remember: coulda fooled us all!), but once again, the crowd was there with them, enraptured by the fury, ready to trample the earth with and for them. When the band messed up, they laughed, making the experience of watching this live that much more genuine, that much more special. 

There was power even during the most fragile moments, such as album-highlight "DTA," while album-and-set-closer "In the Light of the Burning World" felt truly massive, sublime, spiritual. In fact, during the set, audience members embraced, headbanged with eyes closed, bowed their heads and/or stared up at the sky, letting themselves be washed away by the sound and fury. They were pin-drop silent, with barely a phone in site. Not a single one. It was glorious. Although there were some performance and technical issues, the set was so intensely raw, so real that you couldn't help but feel privy to something intimate and immense. It was perfectly imperfect, as all the best things in life usually are. 

Between songs, the sounds of splashing, lapping water rolled through the speakers, organic and enlivened, just like this band and thei performance. It was loud and fragile and beautiful and hypnotic, and certainly one of the best sets of the festival. 

Unexpected moments of fault and fracture like those seen at Ragana are often missing from live music, which can, at times, feel too prepped and rehearsed, "perfected" into charmless, manufactured oblivion. At Prepare the Ground, not only were those moments — of vulnerability, affect and destruction — allowed to happen, they were applauded. By welcoming bands from various corners of the metal and punk underground and creating an inclusive environment, the festival didn't limit itself, and was thus all the better for it. Fans were treated to different styles and approaches, and the carefully curated bills were organized and punctual. Run by a dedicated group of volunteers who deserve to be applauded 100-fold, the festival celebrated how eclectic "heavy" can be by refusing to embrace a singular genre or style, an approach which is beyond refreshing.

The ground is now ready, and the headstone is marked: May 30-June 1, 2025. Here's to next year.

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