Last night at Wellington’s home of heavy music, Valhalla, three different bands showcased three very different styles of metal, and each to success. The date was the first of two New Zealand dates on the joint tour from the UK’s Conan and Canada’s Bell Witch - two well-respected names in modern metal.
However, the first pleasing performance of the night came from a source closer to home - Wellington’s own Opium Eater. The young group thoroughly won the small but enthusiastic audience over with a dynamic set of intricately crafted post-metal. The mix of smooth, atmospheric vocals and harsher ones, with these duties split between the two guitarists, was reminiscent of what the crowd knew was to follow with Bell Witch, and mirrored the gentle-to-heavy transitions in their slowly-evolving songs. These tracks mixed heavy breakdowns with moments of drawn-out calm, strung together with a sense for the dramatic, and played with passion and excitement. The band went beyond their expected support-act role, to impress me on-par with that was expected from our international visitors.
That said, it was really Bell Witch that I was there for. The Canadian funeral-doom duo are riding the success generated by last year’s instant genre classic Mirror Reaper, a one-track, 80 minute epic of slow, mournful musical developments. Most of their gigs since its release have consisted solely of a performance of that track, so fans pretty much knew exactly what they were in for. As anticipated, cheers rang out as bassist Dylan Desmond plucked the familiar watery opening notes to the piece, lulling the audience gently into their set.
The following performance was everything Mirror Reaper promised on recording. The night’s greatest moment arrived after the extended gentle bass intro, when drummer Jesse Shreibman introduced himself with that first monstrous gut-shaking hit. For close to an hour the duo crawled their way through the slow repeated hits of the piece - music that was meditative, in that the slowness of the rhythm came across at many times as a lack of steady rhythm altogether, leaving the listener in a suspended place waiting for the next thunderous cymbal crash.
The intermittent vocals were split between the two members, with Desmond giving a clean, atmospheric, watery delivery, and Shreibman supplying the death-growls and guttural shrieks from his drum kit. When entering so intermittently across the slow hour-long sludge, these vocals were incredibly impactful in a way many metal vocals aren’t to me, creating just as witchy a soundscape as the band name promises.
When my eyes were open, it was rewarding to watch the incredible communication between the two members, coordinating each next drum hit with the next bass note, dragging out the tempo to a bit later than expected, maintaining eye contact. Shreibman would raise his arms high into the air to bring them down for each hit of a tom, creating a massive sound.
Without any guitarist, Desmond conjured up a thick and encompassing atmosphere from his many-stringed bass, keeping deep gut-churning notes on the lower strings, running through plenty of distortion, and joining them with higher tapping and harmonising on the instrument neck. In music as slow and repetitive as this, every single note drew equal attention to itself, and each was placed with deliberation. A large part of the enjoyment of this set was simply to stand and bask in the range of overtones coming from the bass, with each one ringing out as though from an organ of harmonics, punctuated by the more immediate transient sound of the drums.
After their set, the two band members could be found in the audience, meeting people, as this is the only way to leave the stage at Valhalla - something I love about the venue. Shortly afterwards, they could also be found in the mosh pit for the next and final act, Conan.
Conan really kicked up the energy to end the night, rewarding the audience with a heavy, rhythmic, feel-good set after the meditative ambience of the previous band. The tightly-packed, logo-dense crowd responded enthusiastically, and developed a good mosh. The Liverpudlian three-piece played an hour of stoner-influenced doom metal, trudging along on deserty riffs and solid steady rhythms. Generally, things were kept direct, sludgy and mid-tempo, valuing punch and impact, though the drummer’s frequent rhythmic changes within each piece were one of their most distinctive musical features. They were a great crowd-pleasing way to end the night, and their performance was fantastic. At points I found their music quite “samey”, but I realise I can’t fairly use that word after praising Bell Witch’s beautifully repetitive performance. They were simply less captivating, but that wasn’t the point of their mosh-happy set.
Whoever the crowd was there for, they would have been satisfied in full, with two very different musical experiences both fully delivering on their promises - and a third, local success from Opium Eater thrown in as an extra treat. A great gig, because all three acts offered very different music and moods, but all linked by a continuing musical and emotional thread of heaviness, darkness, and impact.