Brutal Assault 2019

Setting aside the line-up for the moment, Jaroměř’s Brutal Assault Festival has much to recommend it. This was my third visit to this renowned Czech metal gathering, now in its 24th year. Situated in the 18th Century fortress of Josefov, the setting offers many hidden corners and caverns to hide away from the sun. The barracks are converted into a cinema and ambient lodge. Some chambers are given up to art exhibits, others to bars, underground passageways are transformed into ossuaries and others into meet-and-greet areas. The beer is cold and cheap, the food is diverse and almost universally delicious. The campsite is sprawling and interspersed with many trees and a river.

BA is smaller than the likes of Hellfest or Wacken, whilst still attracting big hitters such as Anthrax and Napalm Death. The fortress location limits its capacity somewhat, but this is a plus to my mind. The Europeans have always had a more relaxed attitude to loud music and heavy drinking. There is much revelry to be had, but if one wants to live at a more mellow pace, you are left in peace to do so. The beached beer-guts that start appearing throughout the day mean no harm, they simply live by a different timetable to those waiting for the headline acts.

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But enough of the culture, on to the music. I am but one man, so this is an account of the bands I managed to catch sober enough to do justice to their performances. More comprehensive reports will have to be sought at bigger operations than this.

Voivod

These sci-fi thrash masters never fail to impress, and this show was no exception. It’s almost baffling how effortlessly they work their way through their unique brand of technical-progressive metal; all delivered with a wry sense of humour. Celebrating thirty six years of music, their set did justice to their many forms, weighted somewhat towards ‘The Wake’ and the ‘Post Society’ EP, both remarkably strong releases from these veterans.

‘The Psychic Vacuum’ was a welcome surprise, and the crowd seem to have forgiven the alt-rock leanings of ‘Angel Rat’, as ‘The Prow’ was wheeled out mid set to a thunderous response. Snake has lost none of his eccentric humour, pushing Chewy around as he works his way through mathematically precise solos, and keeping the crowd on their toes. The one downside to their set was the sound, which was a consistent shortcoming on the Sea Shepherd stage throughout the festival. The bass drum and toms were dominant, drowning out the symbols and some of the intricate lead guitar work unique to Voivod. When Away battered his way through tom rolls it washed away all else, the kind of throbbing that burrows deep into your chest. With some bands this would work, but Voivod require a lighter touch.

However, the set ended with ‘Voivod’, and all notions of subtlety were sacrificed at the alter of this d-beat thrash classic.

Incantation

It’s off to the Obscure tent to witness these old school death metal masters. Incantation have been chucking out LPs consistently in their thirty something year lifespan, so we have another intimidating discography of possibilities ahead. Having cracked out a classic rendition of ‘Devoured Death’ however, McEntee announces that the set will focus on the oldies, celebrating thirty years of Incantation. And sure enough, they begin to work through classics from ‘Onward to Golgotha’, ‘Diabolical Conquest’ and ‘Mortal Throne of Nazarene’.

These tracks have not aged a day since their release, bursting forth from the Obscure tent stage they sound, if anything, fresher than ever. One subtler advantage the live setting affords us is the chance to assess the development of an older artist without falling too far into the trappings of debating the production choices of each release. For one such as Incantation, whose progression has been subtle and gradual, it becomes an interesting exercise in the benefits of incrementalism.

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Photo by David Surovec, courtesy of Brutal Assault

‘Onward to Golgotha’ is undoubtably my favourite Incantation release, but there is no question that Incantation did not rest on attempting to rehash this classic on the follow ups. And this came through in abundance from their set. One can pinpoint the genesis of ideas within the tracks taken from OTG, and compare them immediately after with the releases that followed, their development and fruition. One also gets a sense of just how influential Incantation have been to death metal, and how relevant they remain. A triumph of old school death doom.

Krisiun

On to day two, after a much needed bowl of fruit and a coffee it’s time to take in some more death metal, this time from Brazil’s Krisiun. Having only a passing familiarity with their discography I knew two things before they took to the stage, they don’t do slow, and their solos are something to behold. Sure enough after the show, I would nominate these guys as my personal undiscovered treasure of the weekend.

On a purely technical level they are impressive. The blast beats could not be tighter, as they seamlessly switch from frantic chaos to controlled mid-paced thrash riffs without drawing breath. Just when their music is in danger of becoming a wash of unvaried speed and noise they turn proceedings on their side, with a chaotic breakdown, or tension laden lead guitar work. This is the other impressive aspect to their live show; they make an awful lot of noise for a three-piece. Moyses Kolesne’s soloing is so engaging that one hardly notices the lack of rhythm guitar when he’s in full swing.

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Photo by Radek Holeš, courtesy of Brutal Assault

Clearly loving every moment of it, Krisiun’s set was the perfect way to blow away the cobwebs of the previous night and greet the coming afternoon.

Sodom

Judging by the t-shirts on display around the festival, this was a highly anticipated set. Having either been too far back or too many pints deep at previous Sodom shows, I was relishing the opportunity to fully absorb a set from these giants of Teutonic thrash. Leading a new line up which sees the return of Frank Blackfire, Angelripper was clearly full of beans for this show.

One of our party always makes a point of how he prefers American thrash to the Teutonic strain. We debate this at length at times. His reasoning comes down to variation, musicality, dynamics, and nothing more than entertainment value. I for one am in constant admiration of the efficiency and unrelenting pummelling that is the likes of Destruction and Sodom in their prime. I find the German accent less grating than the overly Americanised excesses of the big four. Whilst the best of Slayer and Metallica may have soared higher than their European counterparts, they are famously far less consistent.

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Photo by David Surovec, courtesy of Brutal Assault

Having said that, Sodom offered the usual renditions of ‘In the Sign of Evil’ and ‘Agent Orange’, showcasing the diversity and innovation their discography boasts even within the space of a couple of albums. To cap off a near perfect set they finished with ‘Bombenhagel’, Sodom’s answer to Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’, a track with four finales, each more epic than the last. By this point the crowd was begging for more, but proceedings cannot be delayed, even for Sodom.

Testament

Talk of the devil, it’s Testament. Having only caught the second half of their set and only really being familiar with ‘Legacy’, I can’t speak with any great authority about their set. What I did see was old school thrashers still at the peak of their game, working the crowd with ease. American thrash has had a hard time over the years, struggling to stay relevant, dropping many dead-ends of musical progression along the way.

In a field of overrated has-beens, Testament have escaped the worst of fans’ wrath over the years. One reason for that is obvious in watching their set of crowd pleasers, high fidelity musicianship, and something widely referred to as ‘fun’.

Discharge

After taking in Testament’s set from afar we see on the big screens an announcement that Deicide have failed to get the right flight over, so their set has been cancelled. I sensed a passive aggressive tone in the language of the message, which told me that the organisers were pretty fuming about this, and with good cause. This is not unusual for Deicide, it was not clear if they missed their flight or just failed to plan correctly. Either way, pretty bad form. My disappointment at being denied the opportunity to catch them for the first time marred the evening somewhat. After trying (and failing) to endure some of Anthrax’s set, we threw in the towel and went for a beer.

However, a late night set from punk legends Discharge soon cleared the air. Having caught them a couple of times around 2010/11 it’s clear that changes in clientele since then have shifted things up a gear for these veterans. Vocalist JJ Janiak adds renewed energy and power to their stage presence, as does Terry Roberts, now on guitar duties. I honestly can’t remember the shear number of songs they managed to pummel through in their hour-plus set, but each one hit harder than the last.

Every hit on ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’ was delivered with a force that lifted the crowd up even at this late hour. After so much thrash throughout the day, it also became a history lesson in the rhythmic foundations of much of the music being enjoyed at the rest of the festival. The d-beat foundation is as addictive as it energetic, and many of the artists playing throughout Brutal Assault and beyond would quite simply not exist in their current form without these legends of hardcore punk.

After a set that ripped through all in its path, it’s time for some r&r.

Immolation

Having taken in some bits and pieces throughout the late morning, I took in the first half of Destruction’s set with passing interest. Much as I love these German thrashers, they lack the creative spark of Sodom, relying more on energy and enthusiasm to get by over force of riffs. I’ve also seen them more times than I can count, and I want to get a spot for favourites Immolation.

I have always had a frustration at Immolation sets and how loaded they are towards their latest release of the day. I understand the desire to showcase the latest material, and constantly playing tracks written twenty or thirty years ago can become tiresome. But if your discography allows it, you should mix it up as much as time will allow. There will always be someone in the crowd who has never seen you before, and is looking forward to you cracking out a classic or two.

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Photo by Radek Holeš courtesy of Brutal Assault

With that in mind let’s note that on a technical and emotional level Immolation’s set was flawless. They are consummate performers, clearly passionate about their craft, and the nicest bunch of death metallers you’re likely to meet. But the set was loaded towards ‘Harnessing Ruin’ onwards. ‘Father You’re Not a Father’ was wheeled out sure, as it is at pretty much every Immolation set, and of course ‘Dawn of Possession’. Now don’t get me wrong, ‘Kingdom of Conspiracy’ aside, newer Immolation still has much to offer, and it was a pleasure watching them play. But there is an underlying frustration to their favour of newer material at the expense of anything off ‘Failures for Gods’ and ‘Herein After’. This may be looking for flaws on an otherwise perfect canvas however.

Being down the front for this set, special mention must be given to crowd=surfers, which seemed to hit a whole new level during Immolation. Indeed, by the end of the set we had formed a temporary family of meerkats down the front, with each of us taking it turns to stand with our back to the band and watch for the next incoming body. The sense of shared experience with strangers, the joy and passion we all had for the music, this is why we do what we do.

Emperor

Another brief break from serious band watching for food and booze, and it’s time to get a spot for Emperor. In navigating the crowds we took in some of Heilung’s set on the Jägermeister stage. It was a fine choice to put them on at dusk, turning their set into a prelude to the night’s proceedings. But by this point, anticipation for Emperor was at fever-pitch. We were unclear on what to expect from their set, would it be a rendition of ‘IX Equilibrium’? Despite being its twentieth anniversary, airing out their most divisive album felt like an odd move. Our questions (and prayers) were soon answered however, as they walked on to ‘Alsvartr (The Oath)’ and the loudest reception of the festival so far.

Having caught them at Hellfest in 2014 reciting ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’, it was a real treat to now see them showcase their (for my money) second best album ‘Anthems to Welkin at Dusk’. I’m pretty sure that Ihsahn could work his way through these tracks in his sleep by this point, but he, Samoth, and Trym – the emotional core of Emperor – seem all humbly aware of what these songs mean to the fans, and black metal at large, and they grant them the respect they deserve.

Whatever issues with the sound on the Sea Shepherd stage there were on day one had been ironed out by this point. Emperor delivered a flawless set of theatrical symphonic black metal, and by the end of ‘With Strength I Burn’ I was close to tears. Rather than end on the solemn march that is ‘The Wanderer’ (although I love that track) they immediately cracked into the last three tracks on ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’ to end the show, and the centrepiece of the festival was complete.

There is so much music to unpack in an Emperor set, and each component takes on new life and significance in a live setting. But there is an esoteric emotional core to this experience that is hard to define. A degree of restraint and subtlety that places their music a step above similar artists, and keeps this music relevant. It was time for a beer and a moment to digest what we had experienced.

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Photo by Radek Holeš, courtesy of Brutal Assault

Taake

By this point the festival was beginning to live up to it’s name, as I found myself running from stage to stage to catch the night’s proceedings. Resorting to watching Taake from afar in the Obscure tent, I was probably not in the right state of mind to take it in. Taake have always been second division black metal to my mind. Consistent, with hints at engaging middle of the road black metal, but never exciting.

Despite appearing full of beans, their set, what I caught of it, seemed to focus on the black ‘n’ roll aspects over pure black metal. This being a style of limited appeal for me, I took my leave to catch Electric Wizard.

Electric Wizard

The last time I caught these doom staples they were somewhat disappointing. Appearing bored, tired, monotonous, I started to believe that their live sound relied purely on a wall of noise, if the tech could not provide this, or if the previous act built an even bigger wall, their one trick was quickly exposed.

However, this did not seem to be the case tonight. Electric Wizard get a lot of stick for their thinly veiled Sabbath revivalism. And with the release of ‘Time to Die’ and ‘Wizard Blood Wizard’ it was clear that ideas were wearing thin. But these last two LPs aside, there have been many attempts to innovate and develop their sound. Just compare the fuzzy jams on ‘Come my Fanatics’ and ‘Dopethrone’ to the understated psychedelia of ‘Let us Prey’, and both to the garage rock leanings of ‘Black Mass’.

For the last three or so songs I caught of their set this subtlety beneath their old school doom came through. ‘The Chosen Few’ sounded positively epic, and crowd pleaser ‘Funeralopolis’ never fails to pick the energy up to round things off. A surprisingly energetic show all round, complete with Jus Oborn being positively chatty between songs; muttering two, sometimes even three words.

Primordial

It’s back over to the Sea Shepherd stage to catch yet another set from these stalwarts of Irish metal. The appeal of Primordial, both live and on record, is much like that of the late Bolt Thrower. From obscure primal (yep) beginnings, they have morphed into consistently pleasing epic metal giants. Tried, true, and rarely fails to hit the spot.

Nemtheanga is a born performer, utilising every trick in the crowd-working book, from hand gestures to passionate banter. Tonight however….Primordial fell victim to the dodgy sound on this stage which seemed to have reared its ugly head again. They opened with ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’, the strongest track on an otherwise weak album. The guitars dominate all. Nemtheanga gestures several times to up the volume of his vocals. The bass drum clicks over everything, which when applied to their energetic Celtic rhythms quickly devolves into a mess.

As the set progresses through more or less the same set that Primordial always play, things do improve. By the time ‘The Coffin Ships’ comes around the course has been corrected. And by ‘Empire’s Fall’ we’re back to peak Primordial. This was one of the weaker sets of the festival, but partly for reasons outside of Primordial’s control. One being the technical issues, the second being that it was pretty late on by this point, the crowd was tired, and not ready to do justice to the power and glory of the Primordial experience. Lastly, when you have risen the bar of consistency as high as Primordial have over the years, it’s all too easy to fall short of expectations.

Triumph of Death (Hellhammer)

Electing to hang at the back in anticipation of Godflesh, this set was still a delight. The last time I was at Brutal Assault we caught Triptykon in all their imposing majesty. Tom G. Warrior was in suitably eldritch form. Tonight, by contrast, he appears positively bouncy. Hellhammer are the stuff of legend in this day and age. And one can sense the collective joy spreading throughout the crowd over the course of the show. Although their music is primitive, extreme for its day, abrasive, and undeniably influential, it is also playful and creative. And Warrior’s upbeat temperament on the night reflects this. ‘Oh, and by the way…OOOH’.

Godflesh

Fun as Triumph of Death was, it’s time to make for the Obscure tent once again, and the more serious matters that need addressing within. It’s getting on for two in the morning by this point, and legs are growing weary. Having been at Godflesh’s first reunion show at Hellfest in 2010 – a set of unadulterated industrial groove that was criminally cut to a mere half an hour – I’ve watched their live show evolve with their sound since that time.

More recently I caught them supporting Neurosis at the Kentish Town Forum back in July. I do not have a good relationship with this venue. Prone to overcrowding, poorly designed bar placement that blocks up the walkways, always too hot, and sound that goes from painfully loud to pathetically non-existent, sometimes throughout the course of one song. Godflesh this time around were too quiet, their setlist however, offered some pleasant surprises. Not touching ‘Streetcleaner’ or the self titled EP, they stuck to forgotten gems of their discography, such as ‘Merciless’, ‘Defeated’, and ‘Sterile Prophet’. What got the best response however, was the first three tracks of 2017’s ‘Post Self’.

Their set at Brutal Assault was an exact re-run of this, but with the shortcomings in lack of atmosphere all but ironed out. Godflesh on record go from sublime genius, to mild tedium, to mild intrigue, and everything in between. Such is the nature of experimental artists. And their live shows mimic this. It is music that relies on experience and atmosphere as much as it does musicality. And the ideal setting it turns out, is two in the morning, in a hot smoky tent, with minimal back lighting, to a crowd struggling to remain on its feet, and of course, crushingly loud.

It was a mushy, sludgy, infectiously groovy tour of the paths lesser taken through Godflesh’s back-catalogue. The unstoppably heavy rhythms do strange things to the sleep deprived brain. It engenders a kind of downer euphoria that delays the oncoming sleep. I was muttering gibberish to myself on the long trek back to the campsite. My fears had been abated, Godflesh have lost none of their magic.

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Vltimas

Today’s the day that the promised rain set in. Having only heard the goregrind chaos of local favourites Gutalax, appropriately from a nearby portaloo, the weather took a turn for the worse. Many elected to take shelter throughout the afternoon. After some damp wanderings, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to take in Vltimas.

Headed up by David Vincent, I was curious where his career had zigzagged off to these days, now that the dust has settled on Morbid Angel’s failure of Episode I proportions. Their show provided an oddly comforting balm to the now pretty consistent rain. Vincent’s stage presence is a puzzle these days. It manages to be captivating despite the fact he does nothing more than stand there, pull faces, and slowly strike the odd pose. Unlike many other death metal vocalists his age, his voice remains powerful and diverse, both clean and distorted. Having briefly turned his talents to country music, his evil Johnny Cash style is now manifested to Vltimas.

They sit somewhere on the scale of gothic infused death metal. The band are tight and consistent, and David Vincent’s earthy vocals offer a cheesy but likeable operatic flare to this otherwise run-of-the-mill extreme metal. One wonders how inclined the members of Morbid Angel involved in that album are to play it safe these days, but if this set is anything to go by, they are not through with the metal scene that found them so wanting in recent years.

Saor

With rain now well and truly here to stay, it’s off to the comfort of the Obscure tent once again to take in Scottish folk/black metallers Saor. Aside from the warmth and shelter afforded by the tent, the music of Saor is oddly soothing, akin to a lullaby of sorts; it’s devoid of drama and tension, there is no conflict and no struggle. There is simply a series of pleasing sounds, blended together into a predictable balm of cadences and progressions.

It is dangerously close to vacuous post metal. But Saor have just enough ideas in them to get by on credentials pretty close to ambient music. The trancelike rhythms carry along pleasing chord progressions, bolstered by minimalist fiddle playing, and just when one refrain becomes tiresome, they will transition into the next. There are tempo changes, there’s even a rhythm section that articulates itself from time to time. But their appeal is very much on a wash of pleasing noise. For that reason I am reluctant to die on their hill. I find Saor relaxing, I would be more than sympathetic with those that remain unimpressed.

Antaeus

This was a set I had been personally anticipating since I saw them added to the BA bill. Since being a lonely teenager falling down the rabbit hole of extreme metal, stumbling over rare gems in the deep places of the internet I have loved Antaeus, and ‘Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan’ remains an undisputed classic of the militaristic black metal bent. Placed on the curious Octagon stage, a courtyard hidden within the fortress, as dusk set in, the crowd and anticipation built.

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Being rather young when I first encountered these masters of French black metal, I was slightly in awe as Set and MkM took to the stage and treated us to an hour of uncompromising noise. ‘De Principii Evangelikum’, ‘Inner War’, ‘Words as Weapons’, and a few off ‘Condemnation’ that I am slightly less familiar with; all received a fair hearing. I was transfixed by the consistent speed and intensity they maintained throughout. Their stage presence was distant, barely two words spoken between tracks. It felt more like a wordless ritual than a gig. It was a special, unrepeatable moment. One for the dedicated.

Carcass

Having seen Napalm Death more times than you’ve had hot dinners, I decided to listen to their set from the beer hall to the side of the Jägermeister stage. After some food and yet more beers, we were ready to round off the weekend with the universally loved Carcass. Their set held no surprises, but then again, I didn’t it want to. Focusing mostly on ‘Heartwork’ and ‘Necroticism’, Bill Steer briefly took to the mic for ‘Exhume to Consume’; but the real star of this show was the riffs. And one forgets just how many Carcass have.

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Photo by Radek Holeš, courtesy of Brutal Assault

The first chunk of the show was delivered without addressing the audience once, having barely finished one track only to dive into the next. When they finally did come up for air, Jeff Walker made a jibe clearly aimed at Barney Greenway for talking too much. I get the feeling he’s never thought much of Napalm Death. And then it’s on with the show. No surprises, no thrills, just riff after riff until it’s time to go to bed. Jeff Walker may come across as a bit arrogant and stand-offish at times, but there’s no disputing the consistency of a Carcass gig.

***

Everyone feels closer than five days previous, we share a beer, and retire to our tents. Warm beds and showers await us just twenty four hours ahead. The soul, nourished with music and collective unity, now requires the shell of our bodies to return to what we would call modern standards of civility. Brutal Assault continues to grow. Next year’s line-up promises to be special as this festival celebrates twenty five years of noise, and arguably fifty years of metal culture.

As we head back to Prague we are slowly absorbed back into normality, our beards and strange t-shirts attracting glares of disapproval in polite society. A marked contrast than but a day before. The experience is over but will not be forgotten. As is the company. But like my friend said, to get you through the long winter, find yourself someone who looks at you the way I look at Sodom.

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