Those who made it down to Islington’s O2 Academy for tonight’s bizarrely early 5pm start are rewarded greatly. Malthusian only have one demo until their belt, but still manage to open up proceedings beautifully. Sharing a homeland with the headliner, they’re undoubtedly the most extreme band on the bill and they prove it with a short but destructive set blurring the lines between black and death metal in a fiery repulsive melting pot with much to offer. Their second number, ‘The Mother’s Blade’, is particularly enthralling, its otherworldly black metal leads giving way to the sludge and murk of the song’s weighty conclusion, throbbing and pulsating with equal menace and violence. Their multiple vocalist approach rules both in terms of dynamics, a cacophony of howls, roars and ghostly shrieks intertwining with each other and preventing monotony, and in terms of stage presence. If tonight’s headliner and main support are about heritage and being in tune with the Earth beneath their feet, Malthusian are about shattering it.
Hailing from Sweden, Portrait’s brand of Mercyful Fate-worshipping traditional heavy metal doesn’t sit quite as well for whatever reason. They fail to build momentum after following a band as terrifying as Malthusian, and they seem to have less standout riffs and melodies than the prior band despite being massively more palatable and accessible in sound. Portrait have their moments though, notably on the hammering thrust of ‘Beast of Fire’. Their sound is boosted by some slight modernisations (it’s remarkable how many 21st century trad metal bands benefit from a bit of double bass drumming), and considering singer Per Lengstedt’s throat issues are made clear not just by his informing of the crowd of this but his weak speech when he does so he pulls an impressive job of actually performing, faltering on some of the highest notes but largely being on point. Ultimately it’s the weakest showing of the night by a fair distance but not bad by any means, a solid slab of unremarkable but dependable heavy metal.
The roars greeting Winterfylleth show that the headliners aren’t the only draw this evening. Riding the wave of acclaim that greeted their mesmerising new record “The Divination of Antiquity” with their second London show in a couple of months, Winterfylleth’s fiery yet blissful brand of black metal seems to be winning over more fans by the day without any reliance on gimmicks or esoteric pretensions. Despite recently losing lead guitarist Mark Wood and being forced to draft in a last minute replacement, tonight they’re on fire, lurching into ‘The Ghost of Heritage’ with total confidence and gusto. Sonically they’re fantastic, neither their subtleties nor feral power losing anything in the mix, and the throbbing light show helps them visually match their colourful aural palette.
Anthemic closer ‘Defending the Realm’ and the endlessly uplifting ‘The Swart Raven’ (on which they’re briefly joined by Primordial’s Alan Averill for some backing vocals) are old favourites, and the new material proves why they’ve garnered so much attention recently. ‘Whisper of the Elements’ is as rousing as on record as tonight, frontman Chris Naughton and bassist Nick Wallwork’s conviction palpable in their throaty howls. ‘A Careworn Heart’ truly shines meanwhile, bursts of steam from the stage punctuating its explosion of rolling toms and euphoric melodies. As the crowd is asked whether they’ll be at the band’s headline show at The Black Heart next month, it’s obvious from the response that Winterfylleth have already made a mark.
And then there’s Primordial. As Ireland’s greatest metal export emerge onto the stage and the forlorn tones of ‘Dark Horse on the Wind’ oozing from the PA give way to the magnificent earth-shaking power of ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’, it’s hard not to be a little taken aback. The splendid mix that helped make Winterfylleth so compelling is all the more potent when applied to Primordial’s formidable weight, and the stampeding force of this opening song sends bodies in the Academy heaving. With a setlist perfectly balancing old and new, a rapturously received ‘Gods to the Godless’ and a chilling rendition of ‘Autumn’s Ablaze’ from their early records just as engaging as an emphatic ‘Babel’s Tower’ and a performance of ‘No Grave Deep Enough’ delivered with such force and clarity thanks to that superb mix that it’s genuinely staggering, Primordial don’t put a foot wrong all night. The singalongs from the crowd through ‘Bloodied Yet Unbowed’, ‘The Coffin Ships’ and of course that mid-section of ‘As Rome Burns’ all demonstrate the love people really do have for this band, and it’s well-earned.
Alan Averill’s voice remains absolutely untouchable, and his foreboding presence and theatrical gravitas is believable and infectious rather than simply being an extreme metal frontman wearing some corpse paint and trying to seem evil. He’s also likeable, his darkly humorous introduction to a thunderous ‘Ghosts of the Charnel House’ on spending Saturday night listening to songs about systemic child abuse by the Catholic church prompting more than a few chuckles. Primordial’s magic lies in being mournful yet never dreary, spirited and stirring but absolutely never one-dimensional, and this becomes all the more clear in a live environment as their spellbinding mastery of their pagan craft translates seamlessly. They sound absolutely gargantuan. As they close out inevitably and wonderfully with ‘Empire Falls’, the ultimate rabble-rouser in their canon, they’ve once again proven that they are undoubtedly one of the single best bands on the planet.