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  • Review by Faye Coulman

REVIEWED: Fortress Festival 2024 @ Scarborough Spa (Day 1)

With its darkly absorbing plethora of icily visceral riffage, sumptuous melodic trappings and exquisitely delicate, gossamer-fine atmospherics, it’s hard to imagine an offshoot of extreme metal more all-consuming and immersive than atmospheric black metal. And, if the prospect of an entire weekend dedicated exclusively to such illustrious, darkly entrancing genre talent wasn’t already tantalising enough in the abstract, Fortress has elevated the festival experience to fresh heights of frostbitten, eerily transporting brilliance. Not least owing to the unique and exceptionally panoramic location in which this subterranean gem of a weekender is situated.

From its imposing vantage point perched high atop a lofty cliff face overlooking the fathomless, darkly turbulent waters of the North Sea, historic former dance hall and venue Scarborough Spa is already teeming with a veritable invasion of band shirt and black leather-clad genre fanatics. Amassing a collectively bewildering presence fit to rival that of the fabled Viking hordes rumoured to have descended upon this sleepy seaside town some thousands of years prior, the densely packed multitudes here seen swarming every conceivable inch of the generously proportioned venue thankfully prove to be an infinitely more chilled and affable bunch (despite their outwardly rather sinister general aesthetic). With the early summer sunshine spilling warmly across the Spa’s expansive, black and white-chequered courtyard as long-time friends and new acquaintances chat amiably over ice cold pints of frothing lager, the present atmosphere is one of tangible, rapidly escalating excitement.

Entering the shadowy, low-ceilinged confines of the somewhat wedding reception-esque Ocean Room, however, brings with it an altogether more wintry and inhospitable change of pace as ANDRACCA set about manifesting their brutally engulfing and abrasive craft. With its airily lacerating strains of riffery spilling forth in a pitch-black profusion of scalpel-keen tremolo and sleekly unravelling fretwork, the UK black metal mob pull off an impressive feat in melding this rich multitude of fine, riff-laden detail in amongst a murkily cacophonous undertow of bone-shattering subterranean groove. Via a densely entangled mass of ceaselessly writhing riffery, frantically hammering snares and corrosive screams, newly unleashed title track ‘To Bear the Weight of Death’ pairs searing extremes of acceleration and nightmarish atmosphere to ghoulishly absorbing effect.

Given our significant distance from the lush, primeval woodlands and icily expansive alpine peaks from which WALDGEFLÜSTER hail, it’s a fairly safe bet to assume tonight’s predominantly English-speaking audience probably won’t be aware of just how perfectly the Germans’ decidedly unpronounceable band name (that’s ‘Forest Whispers’ to us Brits) encapsulates the primal, sweepingly majestic essence of their being. And with their endlessly entwining, Alcest-tinged riffery capturing all the fathomless depth and complexity of some intricate configuration of ancient oak tree roots buried deep in the silty, primordial soils of the Black Forest, there’s no mistaking the soul-baring evocative beauty that abides here. Indeed, the visible emotion etched upon the faces of those presently in attendance speaks infinite volumes for the talented collective’s immeasurably moving powers. Together with liberal measures of gnarly, blackly churning bass work, hefty percussive blasts and vocal cord-liquefying screams, Waldgeflüster’s masterful command of these various sonic energies translates to an immersive spectacle that’s as utterly beguiling as it is thoroughly steeped in shadow.

Deriving from a still more far-flung region similarly renowned for its breathtakingly panoramic natural beauty, Maine-based metallers FALLS OF RAUROS’s tautly manipulated melding of lush, intricately woven instrumentation and viciously energised aggression pulls the unsuspecting listener in with instantaneously arresting magnetism. From densely reverberating passages of gargantuan groove and colossal percussive blasts that abound with all the rumbling, lethally expansive majesty of an approaching landslide to lusciously cascading flurries of impeccably sculpted riffage, the Americans handle every tempo change and tonal shift with fluidly organic ease and precision. Within their endlessly riveting, melancholia-steeped repertoire, nine-minute epic ‘Silence’ is exquisitely steeped in atmosphere, its coldly entrancing keyboards evaporating into the ether like the most intangibly delicate of transcendental vapours. Together with razor-keen flurries of frostbitten tremolo that reside high on the peripheries of its bludgeoning yet meticulously measured percussive backbone, from here we’re hurled headlong into a breakneck frenzy of frantic hyperblasts and gargling screams. Capped off with the extra added highlight of witnessing Panopticon’s Austin Lunn join the band on stage for an exceptionally caustic round of guest vocals, Falls of Rauros are an utterly bewitching proposition.

Although high-grossing, internationally acclaimed heavyweights Triptykon may be the big-name act headlining tonight’s monumental array of rare and meticulously sourced subterranean gems, absurdly compelling French ensemble REGARDE LE HOMMES TOMBER push the sonic parameters of darkness to places glimpsed only in the violent ecstasies of religious fervour or, elsewhere, within nightmarish apocalyptic visions in which unspeakable eldritch horrors drag themselves from the depths of the abyss to visit unending torment upon a hapless human race. Whatever your preferred metaphor of choice, however, there’s no question that we’re in the presence of truly awe-inspiring musical artistry tonight as an unceasing slew of thunderous, civilisation-levelling blasts batter the senses into submission like an angry clenched fist below a searing profusion of scalpel-keen tremolo. With their shadowy forms silhouetted against a blinding flurry of white-hot stage lighting and flickering black candles, frontman T.C manifests a ghoulishly arresting presence, hands twisting ornately above his head like a necromancer conjuring forth the very blackest magic in practice as an exceptionally savage circle pit all but engulfs the modestly-proportioned venue. With the room now packed to the proverbial rafters, entry to the Ocean Room is unsurprisingly abruptly closed off to the many hordes of punters outside still vainly awaiting a tantalising glimpse of the carnage presently raging within.

Letting loose an utterly abhorrent onslaught of putrefying, thickly clotted screams that palpably ooze ink-black corruption and anguish, it’s with brutally convulsive force that vocalist T.C lunges headlong into the frantically careening throes of genre-transcending banger ‘The Renegade Son’. With every sleekly elongated line of scalpel-fine fretwork and jagged tremolo accent tangibly teeming with unease and rapidly mounting hysteria reminiscent of an oncoming panic attack, these artful players take ample time to escalate humongous measures of tense anticipation ahead of a brutally exhilarating climax. Together with rich lashings of snaking, densely entangled riffery that’s liberally drenched in malevolent atmospherics and intensely groove-laden rhythmic arrangements, this is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most unsettling and magnetic performances we’ll see all year, let alone this weekend.

Stay tuned for Part II of our Fortress Festival coverage. Coming soon...

In the meantime, check out our interview with Fortress Festival organiser Gary Stephenson HERE


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