Into the Pit: 132: Primordial + Hell Live at Islington 05-May 2012

Getting to see some of my favourite bands over the years really has been a trial. Either I’ve missed shows, been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or said bands simply don’t play the UK very often. The latter is the case with Primordial, who according to their gig history have only played London three times in the past ten years, and this show was the first time in four years.

Live @ o2 Academy Islington, London N1
05 May 2012

So needless to say, there was no way I was missing this. What I did miss, though, were first band Winterfylleth, mainly through time constraints (I really hate gigs where the first band is already done by 1900). It would appear from their reputation and views expressed online that I missed nothing to inspire me.

Hell: O2 Academy Islington: 05-May-2012

Any regrets over the rest of the evening, mind, were dispelled. I got in just as Hell were finishing their first song, and I was utterly riveted by the remaining forty minutes. So, this is a band who were early extreme metal pioneers in the eighties, with a strong anti-Christian ethos, early use of corpse-paint, and a whole bag of fantastic metal-anthems-in-waiting. The band were sunk initially by all manner of disasters, never releasing an album and resulting in the suicide of lead singer Dave Halliday – but returned a few years ago with a new singer (brother of main guitarist Kev Bower), and uber-producer Andy Sneap as another guitarist…and finally releasing all those songs from the first time around.

And fuck me, they were absolutely brilliant onstage. Ok, so it was, at its core, over-the-top eighties power-metal, of the Iron Maiden variety. But this was backed up with a fantastic stageshow, complete with a sackcloth cart-master with bell, flaming torches, self-flagellation, guitarists and bassist throwing shapes in time, and a vocalist with a boom-mike leaving his hands free to reach for the sky every five seconds. Highlights were tough to pick – but On Earth As It Is In Hell is one of the best metal songs I’ve heard in years, MacBeth featured gloriously silly witches incantations to begin with, and things closed with a quite astonishing Save Us From Those Who Would Save Us, although sadly there was no exploding Bible. It isn’t often that you fear for quite how a headline act is meant to follow the support, but here was one of those times. Rejuvenated, and clearly relishing and loving their time back onstage, this is a band showing those they influenced quite how it should be done. Outstanding.

Primordial were perhaps one of the few bands that could possibly follow that and not get overshadowed, going on what I’ve seen online and from live-albums past, and so it proved. All-but impossible to categorise, really – not falling fully into the realms of black metal, doom or folk metal, they take elements of all three and result in a sound that nowadays results in them being in a field of one.

Primordial: O2 Academy Islington: 05-May-2012

In some respects, what makes Primordial so distinctive is not just their sound, but their outlook and lyrical prowess. There is no negativity, instead an outlook that encompasses reflection and hope. Taking lessons from the past to make the future better, or something like, it makes for impassioned songs that are quite extraordinary live.

And in the set played, there were more than a few moments that had my jaw on the floor. Not least opener Lain With The Wolf, the outstanding highlight of recent album Redemption At The Puritan’s Hand, a lengthy, howl in the dark on how humanity always end up killing another, unleashing the beast within for better or worse. Bloodied Yet Unbowed – and Heathen Tribes, for that matter – celebrated the sense of community that those outside of the “mainstream”, be that music, religion or just life in general, always seem to foster. And judging on the ecstatic reaction from the crowd, bellowing along with every chorus, punching their fists in the air, and remarkably actually listening and appreciating what vocalist A.A. Nemtheanga had to say.

Primordial setlist:
Lain With the Wolf
Autumn’s Ablaze
No Grave Deep Enough
Gallows Hymn
Bloodied Yet Unbowed
As Rome Burns
The Mouth of Judas
Heathen Tribes
The Coffin Ships
Empire Falls

Nemtheanga makes for a seriously imposing frontman, too. While the rest of the band are long-haired, and seemingly happy to fade into the background all clad in black, he was shaven-headed, in grey with his entire head covered in silver facepaint and streaks of black warpaint – leaning into the crowd, pointing and bellowing his vocals. And that searing conviction really came across in the two glorious highlights of the entire set. First was the tribal roar of As Rome Burns – now settled in my mind as one of their finest tracks now I’ve seen it live. Underpinned by a thundering, tribal drum rhythm, the chant by the entire room of “sing, sing, sing to the slaves / sing to the slaves as Rome burns” as the song roared back into life was a moment that had the hairs prickling on my neck.

But even that was put into the shade by The Coffin Ships, probably the band’s signature song nowadays whether they like it or not. As I’ve detailed before, this elegaic epic is a bitter and furious lament to the humilation of the band’s Irish forbears in the Irish Potato Famine – and live it is an extraordinarily emotional experience. That is, for the crowd – it was plainly clear, from the point that Nemtheanga dedicated the song to his late grandfather, an RAF pilot, that is an emotionally draining song for him to perform too.

That deep, powerful emotion was deeply set in other songs, too – particularly a glorious Gallows Hymn, the one moment of the set where the pace dropped even further down, five minutes of reflection and sorrow, of questioning whether the path taken is right. That reflection came back in a different way at the close of a set cut frustratingly short (one song at least got dropped from the set near the end due to the band being in danger of breaching a 2200 curfew), as the band blazed into the defiance of Empire Falls, the chorus call of “Where is the fighting man / Is I he?” having a peculiar resonance in the five years since the song was written. In that time Primordial’s home country, as with various others in Europe, have hit unprecedented economic hardship as the current form of capitalism has been found wanting…but there is seemingly few who are now willing to fight back with words, facts and new ideas. One band can never offer all the answers, but they can inspire listeners to think and ask the right questions, to make things a better place.

Ninety minutes of this – and the forty-five of Hell before them – were easily the best metal shows I’ve seen in ages. Don’t believe all that you hear about the world of extreme metal being a relentless, negative and unlistenable place. Those parts do exist, but these two bands go a long way to prove that there are others who keep on plugging away, learning lessons of the past, acting on those and making their futures looking brighter. As Primordial say themselves: “No regrets and no remorse“. It is lesson worth heeding.

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