It is of note that despite Ukraine’s relative exclusion from the wider musical landscape of Europe there is a deep-rooted and prevalent black metal scene within. In many ways the scene can draw parallels with the notable geographic hotspots of the early Norwegian scene or the Icelandic, French — Parisian and Swedish scenes. A multitude of bands that share members and have carved a sonic niche for themselves, let it be known that regardless of personal taste, Ukraine has its own unique sound. In the same way one can easily identify the similarity between bands like Malign, Ofermod, Watain, Dissection, Ondskapt & Mortuus, the same can be said of many Ukrainian bands.
This years Metal East saw a line-up that not only gathered some of the most anticipated Ukrainian acts but also diverse bands from across the world and different genres that injected a sense of texture and diversity to the weekend.
Art Factory Mechanica territory
The sign of Metal East growing and development into a fully fledged "festival" was demonstrated by the addition of various activities and services available. There were plenty of things to do in between sets, whether that be lectures and meet & greets with bands, a sizeable merch section, art display, local vendors selling some bespoke items, a wide variety of food options (that didn’t make me feel nauseous at the concept of having to force down greasy fast food) freshly cooked to order, karting, a BB gun range and archery range… and of course plenty of vendors to enjoy your favourite liquid poison.
The 3-day event featured 21 bands, 7 per day, with a comfortable 40-minute window between each set to recuperate from the sweltering heat inside the venue and relax in the grounds of the venue.
The breaking of the vessel was provided by Morok, unfortunately we arrived a little late and only managed to catch a couple of songs. Of note though is that the "Ukrainian sound" makes its first appearance, and this is where the divide begins — for those enamored with this geographic tonality the set would have surely have been exactly what was desired.
Bergrizen from Kiev played next, and they were the first act that managed to draw a large crowd. Sonically I can’t say it was revelatory but the band played a solid set and was met with great reception. Personally, there was no click for me, many of the songs seemed repetitive and unless you’re familiar with the band’s catalogue to a T, the songs can go by in a blur of similarly styled blast beats and tremolo riffs.
Next up was Necrom, a newly formed band featuring members of Drudkh, Nokturnal Mortum & Khors. Their style blurs the line of black and death metal, falling in line with those inspirational acts from the late 80’s before there was a clear delineation between genres. It was at this second set that the major problem of the fest reared its ugly head — the live sound. Regrettably, the balance of the mix was in complete disarray, lead guitars were far too low in the mix, bass frequencies swamped everything and the songs dissipated into a wall of mush. There is no mistaking this is a band of veritable talent but they were sorely let down by the sound engineers.
The first highlight and surprise (for me at least) of the fest was Harakiri for the sky, fortunately the sound was better for their set, perhaps for the fact the band used their own backline of Kemper amps, necessitated by the bands ever fluctuating textures and dynamics. Post-black is certainly not my joie de vivre but Harakiri’s set provided some much needed respite from the onslaught of distorted guitars, blasts and traditional screamed vocals. Their performance was only let down by the snapping of a string halfway through the set, with no backup guitar a couple of songs was spent with only one guitarist whist the other restrung!
Harakiri for the sky
Up next was Zemial, a hybrid of black and traditional heavy metal, they are clearly heavily inspired by King Diamond/Mercyful Fate… and Elton John judging from the vocalist’s attire. The music was sub-par quite frankly and I get the feeling they’re a band surviving on their legacy of being one of Greece’s oldest Black Metal bands. Beer seemed like a much better option at this point than watching the set!
Friday’s most anticipated band (for me) Archgoat took the stage next. Despite the prevalent sound problems that had afflicted every other band of the day, Archgoat’s no-nonsense sound, rooted in thick, bass driven cacophony didn’t detract from their performance at all. The set was stellar and it’s fair to say that the accusation of "it all sounds the same" can be applied to them but if you know Archgoat, you know what to expect; and they delivered. Hands down the best set of the day, aggressive, tight and pummelling.
Rounding out the day was Dutch death metal legends Pestilence. Finally the sound was correct for the first time that day, the rhythm and lead guitars were audible and the swapped solos were all distinct and intelligible. Musically Pestilence are one of those bands that just "sound like death metal", I can’t say it was sublime but the effort they put in was great. Of all of the bands playing they probably did the best job of engaging with the crowd, summoning circle pits and stirring the crowd into a frenzy. Tonally, they may have been sounded like most current death metal bands but they were tight, engaging and a fitting end to the first night.
Inside of Art Factory Mechanica
Kicking off the 2nd day was Severoth, the issues with sound that had marred some of the bands the day before now came into full force. I almost feel like a disclaimer is needed at this point for Saturday as practically every band’s performance was unbalanced, bass heavy and lacking in presence for additional elements. Regarding Severoth’s performance what can I say, I couldn’t distinguish anything, each song bled into the next with little dynamics or texture.
The next surprise for me was White Ward, another post-black act, hailing Odesa I have to commend them. Their set despite the atrocious sound was engaging and poignant, the added element of live saxophone created an atmosphere that truly set them apart from the majority of the bands playing. Let it be noted that White Ward do not have the "Ukrainian sound", this is clearly a band involved in creating their own art in their own vision, and whilst they may not be a band I’d pick to listen to on a regular basis, they surely made a statement and let their presence be known.
Agatus followed and to say it was underwhelming would be to oversell it, I can’t remember anything of this set, despite apparently watching it. Take from that what you will...
People during Hate Forest performance
Perhaps the most anticipated act for most was the appearance of a reformed Hate Forest with an apparent one off show (I remember Emperor saying something similar!) with no recording of the event allowed. A gig of pure exclusivity. A concept that surely enticed a majority of the fests attendees, at least judging by the amount of Hate Forest shirts being worn. For those fans, they surely delivered and I would dare to say that they drew the largest crowd of the whole weekend. Their performance was well received and a huge talking point by most.
Tech-death band Demilich was next and whatever technicality, soundscapes, textures and dynamics that were performed were missed, not a single thing was heard. Surely a disappointment for those fans eager to see them.
Belgian black metal horde Enthroned were up next and they played a solid set, not my cup of tea for black metal but from what I saw it was competently played… once again the sound was a challenge, with the lead riffs barely intelligible.
The final act of the night was Necrophobic, a band whom this (not so) humble reviewer slated when they released their last album. To be fair, they put on a good show and it’s evident that they’re a band that are very used to playing live and engaging the crowd. They managed to build the atmosphere for the final set of the day and although they may be a middle of the road black band (especially considering their Swedish heritage) it was one of the most engaging performances of the weekend.
Raventale started the final day and we’re once again back into the realm of the "Ukrainian sound". Trem riffs, blasts, you know the score, perhaps of note is that their keyboardist was missing from the line-up. Had this additional element been present, I’m confident that they would have been able to separate themselves from the multitude of other bands on the line-up that played in a similar vein.
Another highly anticipated band by many was the appearance of Ygg — Kharkiv locals and beloved by many. The sound engineering fortunately by this point had improved greatly and the set was well received. Another band in the great bastion of lauded Ukrainian acts. Ygg delivered exactly what the fans were hoping for.
Breaking the flow of Ukrainian acts were Scottish act Saor, once again a band that I was thoroughly impressed by, despite my Gaelic countrymen suffering from the heat and lack of rain they provided a provocative and entrancing set. Atmospheric folk/black metal may not be something I seek out but live they were great to watch. The only challenge with their set was the addition of the violin & clean vocals, something the sound engineers weren’t prepared for, as such the violin was often hard to distinguish amongst the other instruments and the vocalist was affected by the sound engineer not riding the faders enough to make his clean singing parts that audible. Had these elements been more apparent it’s safe to say that Saor would have had been one of the stand-out acts of the fest. They were good but they could have been great.
Up next was one of the bands I was anticipating greatly; Sargeist. Their set delivered in spades, it was atmospheric, evocative and exactly what I hoped. Their setlist was comprised mostly of fan favourites and perhaps most importantly the sound was on point. Their trademark melodic tremolo riffs were distinguishable and everything was performed as hoped. Sargeist proved to be the most "atmospheric" set of the festival, as is their norm, creating a ritual of the performance, replete with incense, tibetan singing bowls and the only performance where it felt like the Satanic lyrics corresponded with the actions of the artist.
Another fan favourite was up next, Nokturnal Mortum. The set was epic, and I have to commend the band for performing in full "costume", wearing furs and many layers in 35-degree weather under the stage lights. To my taste the set was perhaps a bit indulgent, being twice as long as some of the other bands, but for those that were hoping to see Nokturnal Mortum they got exactly what they were hoping for. And perhaps, their long set was a fitting finale to the showcase of Ukrainian black metal for the weekend.
Sargeist interlopers Horna were up next, between the duo of Shatraug’s bands; Sargeist and Horna I will confess to being a lover of the latter, the least. Perhaps the biggest thing in Horna’s favour is their consistent level of activity and performing, this is a band that has honed their craft over many years and regardless of not being enamored with them, they always deliver live. The set was tight, precise and delivered on all fronts for what you would expect of Horna.
Entombed closed the night… wait I mean Entombed A.D. — (Batushka before Batushka!). Entombed are one of those bands that have such a large legacy behind them, one of the pioneers of Swedish death metal, they played a fantastic set that punctuated the greatness and varied styles that were on display at Metal East. They truly got the crowd going and were a fitting closer.
And that’s it! 2019’s Metal East proved to be an event that was cultivated for fans of the Ukrainian scene, and whilst there may have been bands from overseas, the fact that the fest had a heavy focus on showcasing Ukrainian talent is something to be lauded. Metal East you didn’t appeal 100% to this elitists tastes, however, I know that to the many other equally passionate people about many of the bands that played, this was the festival of the year for you!
Report by Dan Thaumitan
Photos by Anastezia G. and Dmythro