No use crying over spilled blood: impressions of Watain in Brooklyn
One thing’s for certain in this world: If it’s a Watain show, there will be blood.
Four of us planned to attend the Watain show June 15 at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar: my Metallomusikum podcast partner Derek, his significant other, Mandi, and Hope, a woman I had met when Watain played in Baltimore last November. In the weeks leading up to the event, we discuss what could possibly happen at this special one-off performance. Would there be carcasses? Would there be fire? Would there be blood? What would they do that would be so markedly different from other U.S. shows?
Two weeks before the show, I conduct a brief interview with Watain’s front man Erik Danielsson that provides some clues. He doesn’t want to give too much away, which is understandable. Still, it’s fun to speculate about what might happen. We are excited.
The morning of the show, however, Hope texts to say she’s developed a fever and cannot go. We leave, literally abandoning “hope” for what, for all we knew, is the ushering in of the end of days. (But probably not.)
Turns out that Derek and Mandi are also sick with some kind of mucus-y plague but they are still on board. I dub the car Typhoid Mazda and vow to wash my hands at every chance. Driving to New York is no joke and not something I like to do, so Derek takes the wheel. We listen to music for the 5.5-hour journey, but they won’t let me listen to Watain. Apparently, that’s “not allowed;” just like it’s not OK to wear the t-shirt of the band you’ve come to see. Who makes up these stupid rules? I don’t like ‘em.
After an unnecessarily long service center break for snacks, numerous detours off the New Jersey Turnpike to avoid traffic jams, one raised drawbridge and about a million dollars worth of tolls, we arrive at our parking destination. We use SpotHero and park in a valeted garage because none of us have a clue about what parking near the venue will be like. Turns out the band Chvrches is playing for free in McCarren Park. This is part of the Northside Fest that the Watain show is also part of. But don’t let Chvrches’ kvlt “v” fool you kids –they play trashy hipster disco and desecrate Bauhaus songs.
Rounding the corner from the stroller-clogged park, we see the colorful walls of graffiti and broken glass strewn streets that create the pathway called Banker Street leading to the Brooklyn Night Bazaar. There’s a painted school bus with an animal skull on the dashboard. We are getting closer. There’s plenty of parking on the street here, but I don’t feel at all bad that we left Mandi’s new car with the nice parking garage attendant.
The first thing I notice when we walk up to the venue is that there are very few people waiting to get in. It’s 6:30 p.m. Doors are at 7 p.m. Where is everyone? The mood seems subdued. Was this impending doom? Hangover? Boredom? I’m not sure. I expected way more people by this point. But there are two opening acts, Kosmodemonic and T.O.M.B, and you know how people are; they skip the openers and then bum rush the people who have been there all night to try to get a spot on the rail. I hate people who do this.
As we approach the entrance, I see my friend Nick walking toward us. He seems particularly excited to tell us about the “sanitary” stations inside. There is no plumbing in the building, no running water. You use chemical toilets and you wash your hands at a plastic sink with a foot-pump operated water faucet. Well, all-righty then, I am not looking forward to that. We kill time chatting with friends, James and Matt, Annie and many others.
At 7 p.m., they start letting people in, and the awing over the entrance gives me the sense that I am entering a huge circus tent. The Brooklyn Night Bazaar is a former functional warehouse turned into a Friday and Saturday night meet-space where pop-up vendors sell all kinds of goods from food to lingerie. There’s an arcade and even a mini-golf course inside. Once through the tented entry, we walk into a huge open room with the arcade to the right and show space to the left. Since tonight is Sunday, none of the usual vendors or clientele are here. Instead, black shirts and leather vests predominate. There are three bar stations, a burger vendor and the glow of pinball machines, where a handful of people are playing. A few picnic tables are scattered around.
At the very first picnic table sits pretty much every member of Watain minus Erik Danielsson. I can’t think of anything clever to say to them to introduce myself, so I just glance away quickly, which is wise because I have played the scenario out in my head, and it goes something like this:
I walk up to Alvaro Lillo and say to him and everyone at the table, “So hi, you guys are Watain, huh?”
Alvaro squints up at me and says nothing.
“Ehmm, that’s cool. See ya out there.” Then I back away, awkwardly smacking my forehead.
Fortunately, this scene does NOT play out in real life. We walk on past the band and survey the show space. Wow, well, this is pretty much not what I expected. The ceilings are low and the stage is tiny. For those of you familiar with Baltimore venues, I’d say the stage is about the size of the Ottobar’s but the rail funnels in toward the front instead of running straight across. The room itself is large, similar to the main room at the old Sonar but with a huge sound booth situated near the middle of the room. It’s tall enough to block your view if you get stuck behind it. I’m told the room can hold 1,000 people. By the end of the night, the room never gets more than half full.
We grab a burger and some waters. I buy the show specific shirt in white. Derek buys one too and puts it on. He gives his other shirt to Mandi. He’s going to need it later. People are milling about. It feels like an awkward middle school dance, only with a lot more leather and spikes.
At this point I meet several people I have only been able to chat with via email or on Facebook. It’s wonderful to put real faces and expressions and voices to images that you only have in your mind. I talk to “USBM” Zimmerman of T.O.M.B. I have wanted to see this Baltimore/Philly black noise project for nearly two years but kept missing them. I chat with Justin of Maine’s black metal wonder ZUD. He serves as a roadie for Watain. I have completed an interview with Justin about ZUD for this blog; you’ll see it soon. I meet Sick Rick, a feast for the eyes and ears with his decorative clothing, vampire teeth and gentlemanly drawl. I meet his lovely lady Lariyah who is sister to my friend Victoria and who, along with Rick and Vicky, are among the many devoted Watain disciples in attendance. And before the night is over I meet Will, a native New Yorker from Queens who loves both Watain and Frank Sinatra.
At about 8:00 p.m. Kosmodemonic takes the stage. Their music is hard to pin down. It’s more rock than the blackened doom metal they self describe as. It has a psychedelic vibe at times. I am not sure what I was expecting from them. Visually, there is nothing remarkable. I enjoyed their set but am not astonished. I’d see them again and will give them another listen to see if there is anything I want to latch onto. I just don’t feel like I am sufficiently familiar with their music to properly evaluate this performance under these circumstances.
At around 9:00 p.m., T.O.M.B begin their 23-minute set of black noise. T.O.M.B stands for Total Occultic Mechanical Blasphemy, and that is an accurate description of what they deliver. One member of T.O.M.B. sits hooded with his back to the audience playing some kind of synthesizer. Their primary “vocalist” obscures his face with a netted mask but wears no shirt. The guitarist, a lithe woman in typical black metal garb complete with bullet belt, sports a scarf of heavy rotting bones. And their other sound manipulator/keyboardist/vocalist dresses in street clothes. He is the one I referred to as “USBM” Zimmerman, earlier. The vocals in T.O.M.B. are at times as dry as a desert wind, as deep and moist as a lowing cow and as menacing as a dictator. The overall musical vibe portrays hopeless, creepy, industrial decay. I thoroughly enjoy their meditative set, which includes eerie screams of a bowed guitar (Jimmy Page style!), maniacal keyboards and the audible destruction of bones. Cutting is involved. Blood flows fresh. The only distraction to their very obscure set is the idle chitchat of the audience. I want to stuff bloody socks in their mouths to shut them up. At the completion of their performance, the audience does not immediately clap. Maybe they just aren’t sure if the set is done. Maybe it went over people’s heads. Whatever. Fuck ‘em. I feel T.O.M.B.’s performance is a much better preparation for the Watain “ritual” than what Kosmodemonic brought.
The audience becomes impatient for Watain to begin. At this point, I see several Watain disciples (members of the official Watain fan club) with water bottles filled with a dark liquid. I am told it is fermented blood. I smell it. Hmmm, smells just like period blood. Now, I know what we were in for… but when?
Nick, a disciple, is standing nearby me. “I will be looking for you,” he smirks. “And Derek. Where is Derek?” I motion toward the center of the room and think to myself, Oh hell no! There was no way I am going to ride all those hours home smelling like a used maxi-pad.
At 10 p.m. exactly Watain marches onto stage. And they are glorious. I have seen Watain twice previous to this. Some metal heads criticize Watain because they seem to sound like one or another band that came before them. No matter. I like the band and will listen to a Watain album, start to finish, without wondering if they are “real” Satanists or posers or if they have “sold out” or whatever. I just enjoy them, plain and simple. I dig the riffs. They have some beautiful melodic parts. Their choruses can be catchy. And Erik Danielsson is a charismatic and earnest front man who is passionate about what he is doing. What’s not to appreciate here?
Two flaming tridents flank the stage but they are staying lit inconsistently. It’s obvious the ceilings are too low to let them blaze much higher. On stage, there is an arrangement of bones including a human shaped skull with large horns in front of the drums, but not like the altar with incense and blood filled chalice that I had seen at previous shows. There don’t seem to be any animal carcasses either, so the stench of death is minimal.
I position myself by the rail and hold on for the first three songs. But by the end of “Malfeitor” I have had enough of the two enormous hillbillies in plaid shirts that have somehow managed to drunkenly bully their way in front of me. Venue security is useless. I decide to pull out.
I spend the remainder of the show milling about the back of the room and at the bar on the opposite side of the room. I can still see OK and the sound is much better back here, but I feel somewhat left out. Maybe I should have held onto my spot. But it was also unbearably hot up in the mix of humans, so I decide to just groove to the tunes and enjoy myself alone.
No sooner do I leave the rail than the band starts playing “Outlaw,” a song from the new album The Wild Hunt that features a tribal drums sounding segment. It is at this point that Erik picks up the horned human skull, moves to the front of the stage and swings a wide swath across the audience. A fan of blood spills out on those closest to him. Shouts and screams rise up. (Later someone reported that people got sick and puked, but I never saw it.)
The mechanical fans overhead catch the spray and create a misty cloud above the crowd. While this may seem like an extreme move to people who have never seen Watain, Erik has done this at every previous performance. It’s nothing new. I know there is more. I know the disciples are “armed”… but when would they strike?
The concert continues. Then I hear the starting riff of “All That May Bleed,” which sounds a little bit like Queen’s “Keep Yourself Alive.” And I believe, though I am not certain, that it is at the conclusion of the first chorus to this song, that Watain’s disciples, who were scattered throughout the bulk of the audience, opened those putrid filled plastic bottles and poured them out upon the crowd. If there’d been screaming when Erik spattered a few cups worth out on some heads earlier, an even greater lamentation goes up this second time around. Anyone near the bulk of the audience is covered.
Just then, I see a dozen or so people, mostly women, sprinting from the crowd toward the “sanitary” stations. Good luck with that, I think, since the water in those sink stands is limited.
Like the first time, the overhead fans catch the spray and scatter a fine red mist across the room. The rotted blood smell intensifies. Combined with the heat of the room, I can imagine some audience members must be feeling queasy. But the smell quickly dissipates. By the end of the song, I don’t really notice it anymore. In fact, I went and bought a drink at the bar during my favorite song, “Stellavore”. Om, nom, nom, star eater!
During what turned out to be Watain’s final song, “Holocaust Dawn,” I take a quick bathroom break. It’s a long song, and I can still hear it from the port-o-john. When I return, the spot where the performance space meet the food and drink space punches me in the face. The heat and smell are overwhelming. I stand there, on the precipice of chaos next to a pregnant woman who for some reason decided going to see Watain while pregnant was a good idea.
“I feel like throwing up,” she says.
I nod knowingly but discredit her as an accurate judge of actual disgust levels because, seriously, when doesn’t a pregnant women not feel like she could throw up?
And then suddenly, the show is over! I hope for an encore, but it never comes. They played for one hour.
I stay near the entryway waiting for the rest of my party to pass by. I see more people I know, and many are pleased at the performance, ritual, concert or however you view it. My traveling companion Derek saunters up, his new white shirt, face and hair covered with blood. Mandi had wisely moved to the back before Watain even got going. Annie and Nick are equally baptized, as were Matt and James. Among the Watain disciples, there is a kind of euphoria. It’s been a long day for them, many of who had arrived early that morning to build the stage and help in other ways. They have just witnessed not only the band they love but also the fruits of their labor. I am happy for them.
Was this special? Was this the ultimate, uncensored, uncompromising Watain show I’d hope for? From my perspective, I’d have to say no. The space, the venue, short notice of the event, it just didn’t allow the opportunity to create the atmosphere I was expecting to see. If you have watched Watain’s DVD “Opus Diaboli,” you will have a better sense of what their full live ritual can be like, but this show and in this setting was not it.
Am I disappointed? Not at all. I like Watain. And unless something very crazy happens, I will continue to enjoy them.
If anything made this show unique, it was in the way that this particular performance engaged Watain devotees. It seemed to be an opportunity for them to rally around their favorite group and participate in a more hands-on way and in a more intimate setting than perhaps they have had the opportunity to before. And that, perhaps, was what Watain intended all along.
It has been said that Watain is not for everyone. And I agree; they are not everyone’s cup of fermented blood. If you don’t get it, they are not for you. Perhaps you are not the one, and it will be very obvious that you are not the one. But if you do get it, and you do understand, then this show was for you. And just for you.