AN ODE TO PASSION AND INTENSITY: AMPLIFEST 2019
Few things in this world are more pleasurable than going the long distance for a weekend of true passion and intensity. Such is the life of a music lover, who searches forever and ever for the best and most interesting music out there in this blue planet of ours. And what better place is there to gather all of these like-minded individuals than Amplifest? My own personal history with the festival is one that is rich with fond memories of outstanding shows and equally great moments. From Swans, Russian Circles, Neurosis and Yob to Anna von Hausswolff, Stephen O’Malley, Chelsea Wolfe and William Basinski, a lot of today’s most compelling and boundary-pushing artists and bands have gathered on this sacred ground – and most of them have since become some of my all-time favourites. Naturally, it was with a heavy heart that I learned about what was perceived as the ending of Amplifest. What started as a promise of return and a sense of hope, soon changed into a feeling of emptiness. When would Amplifest return? Would it ever return? As the days, weeks and months went by, the uncertainty became a certainty – Amplifest was dead. Long live Amplifest. Except, it wasn’t.
After a two-year long hibernation, the festival that I and so many others hold dear to our hearts announced its grand return and with it, a panoply of amazing names that filled its lineup, something that immediately filled our hearts with joy once more. Amplifest was back, baby. Back and better than ever. A journey to Porto is always a special occasion, but as you might’ve expected, this one had a whole nother level of excitement behind it.
This year, things kicked off with an absolute banger. I sat down on the floor of a particularly packed Sala 2 of Hard Club – henceforth called Oitava Colina stage -, to rewatch Where Does a Body End?, the first authorized documentary on the band Swans. I’ve already written words about this film before, so I’ll spare you further comments on it, but I will still say that it is one documentary that you should not miss if you are given the opportunity to watch it. The concerts themselves started a little over half an hour later, as Emma Ruth Rundle took the stage of Sala 1 – which will now be refered to as Bürostage. I was pretty expectant toward this particular performance as I’ve been looking forward to seeing Emma live for about five years now. A cancelled show on her part and a few missed opportunities on my end seemed to always veer ourselves off each others path, but as it stands, I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and that if today was the day that I would get to finally see Emma perform live, than that’s the way things were meant to be. Mainly focused on presenting her latest record, On Dark Horses, Emma opened the show with “Fever Dreams” and “Apathy on the Indiana Border”, and followed it up with a mixture between the aforementioned record and songs from her back catalogue, such as “Hand of God”, “Protection”, “Arms I Know So Well” and the closer “Real Big Sky”. Playing solo might be where one sees Emma Ruth Rundle the most. but seeing her perform in such an intimate manner on such a big stage is an odd experience, at best. Regardless, it was good to finally see her onstage and closing my eyes made me forget the setting, enabling me to focus on the sound and lyrics being transmitted. And on the corner of my eyes, in the small moments they were opened, I could see Emma’s husband, Evan Patterson, on one side of the stage showing his support, headbanging to the heavier moments of her music. A rather beautiful sight, like watching kindred spirits react to each other’s energy and presence.
The Portuguese duo Candura followed up on the Oitava Colina stage with a foggy and sonorous drone performance, that seemed as if the total cosmic darkness of space met the heaviest and most pulsating distortion and intensely fornicated until life extinguished. Does that make any sense? Doesn’t need to. Right after that, Birds in Row assaulted a filled-to-the-brim Bürostage ready to receive the hardcore punk love of the French trio. Presenting their latest record, We Already Lost the World, this was a ferocious performance that showcased the true spirit of the DIY scene and that included songs like “15-38” and “We Count So We Don’t Have to Listen” from the aforementioned record, as well as a couple other “older” songs. We returned to the Oitava Colina stage for a quick stop to catch Some Became Hollow Tubes live, a duo composed of Eric Quach (Thisquietarmy) and Aidan Girt (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), but our hearts were already racing for a certain band’s impending visit to the Bürostage.
There they were, Daughters, in all their savage and untamed glory. You know, I once tried to describe this concert to some friends but no matter what I said or how well I described the band’s performance, it seemed that it was not enough, there was always something left to say. From the moment the riffs of “The Reason They Hate Me” started to be heard, it was chaos through and through. Not just among the audience, but onstage as well. Alexis S.F. Marshall is as an insane performer as he is a brilliant vocalist and that fucking shows. The dude spent the entire show shouting lyrics and gesticulating heavily, all the while massacring his own body in various ways, whether it was beating the microphone on his forehead or scratching and whipping his chest and belly with his belt until both were blood red, and the rest of the band weren’t too far behind themselves, as they were also in a state of pure euphoria, everyone was all over the place. The setlist itself consisted on the band’s comeback record, You Won’t Get What You Want, from which they played the hymnal “Satan in the Wait”, the debauched “Less Sex” and the delirious “Guest House” – which saw Alexis kneel down at the end, seemingly crying as incredibly vivid emotions were fleeting, a possible reminder of some event in his present or past life -, among other tracks from their previous self-titled record, such as “The Hit” and “The Virgin”. This gig had absolutely everything, from stage dives and moshing to Alexis licking faces and kissing foreheads, as well as guitarist Nick Sadler making highly suggestive moves with his tongue and overall madness and pandemonium. It is by no means a stretch to say that this was, in fact, the gig of the festival. Hell, it was the gig of the year for me personally, enough said. Powerful, intense, emotional, devastating. God fucking damn, a perfect show. Bravo, Daughters.
You might assume that after such a profound and vigorous exercise, that the rest of the festival would pale in comparison. You could almost be right, but this was just the beginning to a whole week dedicated to passion and intensity. And speaking of intensity, Tristan Shore, or rather, Author & Punisher was up next. Armed with his self-built mechanical synths that can kill fascists – as the inscription on them suggests -, this one-man industrial doom army provided the first stage of a much-needed cleanse after the hurricane that was Daughters. With hellish fury, Tristan delivered a crushingly visceral performance that contained songs such as “Nihil Strength”, “Disparate” and “Terrorbird”. An all-around terrific gig. The second stage of cleasing came right afterwards at the hands of Amenra, who were celebrating 20 years of existence and presenting their latest record, Mass VI, for the first time in Portugal. If you know me then you know how much love I nurture for the Belgian collective. Their music speaks to me in so many levels and I often find myself describing them as healing metal, a term that derives from their lyrical themes that range from subjects such as personal loss, pain and spirituality, and how well it blends in with Amenra own incredibly heavy sludge/doom sound. There is this huge therapeutic aspect to Amenra’s music and watching them perform live is always a purifying and transcendental experience, an audiovisual ritual that provides the perfect setting for introspection and meditation. With each song performed, every riff resonated, every word spoken or shouted, you can feel Amenra’s suffered soul energy flowing, something we grab onto and channel, as a way to restore our own bodies, minds and souls. And despite the fact that this was my third time seeing them live, they still managed to surprise me in a big way. The lineup of songs itself wasn’t much different from what one would be used to when seeing Amenra. In fact, apart from the newer songs “Plus près de toi”, “A Solitary Reign” and “Diaken”, this was pretty much the same concert you would expect, with songs such as “Razoreater”, “Boden” and “Am Kreuz” making an appearance. But the thing is, Amenra are so fucking good live that in the very first moments you immediately forget you have seen them before. It is, somehow and someway, always a new experience.
After such a spiritual cleansing, I needed time to reconstitute my inner self and when I got a hold of my bearings, I was still in the middle of Bürostage, dancing away to my heart’s content to the sound of the heavy beats and rave rhythms that were being provided by one JK Flesh, who you might know better as the vocalist/guitarist of Godflesh. Yeah, he has a side gig as a rave master and he looked pretty diabolical that particular night, but fuck me if it wasn’t the perfect ending to a perfect first day of Amplifest.
The second day of Amplifest for me began with a trip back to Bürostage to see Inter Arma, a band that has been on the mouths of many as of late. And for good reasons too. Their latest record, Sulphur English, is a tormented cocktail of deep sludge tonalities. blasting drums and gutturals that rose from the deepest and filthiest well. Onstage they aren’t as impressive, but the potency was still there, with songs such as “The Atavist’s Meridian” and “Citadel” translating well into a live setting. Returning to the Oitava Colina stage, I arrive just in time to witness Portrayal of Guilt’s live debut on Lusitanian soil. Despite a few hiccups here and there with Alex Stanfield’s bass and amp – those things did not want to work that day -, I was not disappointed in the slightest. It was an aggressive shower of killer riffs and precise drum hits that inspired the audience to perform some serious and much-needed headbanging. “The One”, “Humanity Is Frail”, “The Nihilist” and “Daymare” were some of the songs played in what was a really fun gig to watch. Hopefully they will return soon.
Afterwards, it was time to go back to the Bürostage to witness the return of Pelican to Portugal. It had been about twelve years since their last and only show in the country – at the time promoting their third LP, City of Echoes -, so a visit by the North American post-metal quartet was highly awaited. This time promoting a brand-new record, their sixth LP Nighttime Stories, the band opened the show with “Midnight and Mescaline” from that very same record. This was a master class on excellently performed instrumental music that is as somber and melancholic as it is inspiring and cinematic. While closing my eyes, I could picture the stories and landscapes the band’s music produces in a studio setting and getting to hear tracks such as “Deny The Absolute”, “Abyssal Plain” and “Cold Hope” performed live was a real treat. The sigil-clad Gaerea then filled the Oitava Colina stage with absolute blackness and gloom, as they performed tracks from their debut LP, Unsettling Whispers, much to the gaiety of all present, but soon enough, it was time to return to the Bürostage to catch Touché Amoré. I’ll confess that this band doesn’t do much for me, perhaps because I haven’t been paying much attention. But boy, oh boy, are they really good live. I mentioned intensity and passion when talking about Daughters’ gig the day before, but this guys don’t fall too much behind them in that department. Even though the festival was well into its second day, that didn’t mean much for an audience that was eager to move their bodies and to release energy left and right. This show was a powerful demonstration on why I and all of you should be paying more attention to Touché Amoré and bands like them, as passionate and anthemic tunes such as “Pathfinder”, “Swimming With Sharks”, “Honest Sleep”, “Home Away From Here”, “Rapture” and so many others, pushed the limits of stamina and invited the audience to stage dive, crowd surf and mosh at will. Many were the interactions with vocalist Jeremy Bolm, who more often than not lended his mic to the crowd that was pumped up to sing and shout every lyric. “Skyscraper” and “~” ended what was an awesome and highly energetic show that left everyone with a desire for more carnage. Luckily, their wishes would be fulfilled but in a different manner altogether.
Much like Amenra the day before, this was the third time I was seeing Deafheaven onstage. And just like the Belgian collective, this North American post-black metal quintet always manages to surprise me. No newcomers at Amplifest, as they performed in the festival back in 2013, this was perhaps the band that everyone wanted to see the most. One can undestand why – Deafheaven has been on top ever since the release of their second LP, Sunbather, which catapulted the band to what could be perceived as stardom. An international sensation, loved by the indie folk and hated by metal purists. But Deafheaven don’t care much for this sort of things and tonight they were there for one thing only: have one hell of a good time. Presenting their latest record, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, Deafheaven showcased their blend of black metal’s aggressive musical stylings and post-metal’s melodic finesse, as evidenced by the songs “Honeycomb”, “Canary Yellow” and “Worthless Animal” from the aforementioned record, as well as “Black Brick”, “Brought to the Water” and “Dream House” from previous studio efforts. That was their entire setlist and you might think it is a short one, but bear in mind that these guys rarely compose anything that isn’t over eight minutes long. From the bands instrumental mastery to George Clarke’s harsh vocals and sensual dance moves, this had all the ingredients to be a pretty cool show, where it not for some problems in the audio mixing which sort of killed the vibe a little bit. Nevertheless, Deafheaven gave their all and in turn, the audience responded by interacting with the band in every way they could and ferociously headbanging and air guitaring to the sound of some of the genre’s most expertly crafted music.
For some, that would have been the end of another Amplifest edition, but for me, there were still two things to see. One of them was Nadja, the brilliant and loveable drone duo from Canada that was returning to Porto after ten years. Stating what the latest record by Nadja is would be pointless, as the duo always tend to improvise their sets, mixing various pieces of music and droning over them, like a cascade of sounds, a crescendo of tonalities. Meditative and pensive was the small flock of people that still had the strength to stand still and gather at the Oitava Colina stage to muse over Nadja’s music, adequately accompanied by lo-fi videos of the most beaufitul cats. The second thing to see before leaving, was the surprise band: Deaf Kids. The Brazillian trio brought all their mesmerizing bangers and electrifying tunes, but at this point all I could do was sit down and listen with eyes closed, fucked out of my mind from experiencing what was one of the best weekends of my life. In a way, that was the most appropriate soundtrack to be playing at the very end: the distorted sounds of the cosmos that ripped through tired bodies and teared yielding minds. And in the end, all that is left to say is that I’m glad Amplifest returned and I for one hope that it has come back to stay.
Words by Filipe Silva
Photography by Marta Rebelo
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