So… wow! What an absolute pleasure and privilege to have been able to review what will probably be referred to as the most important gig thus far in the history of South African metal. Not so much in the sense of who won or why, but rather in that it was about so much more than just entertaining the masses; it was about raising the bar for all performers of metal music in this country, for now and for always. Never before have we seen such a concentrated gathering of the country’s highest caliber of underground metal bands compressed into one line up as this. The Wacken Metal Battle: South Africa finals took place at the Arcade Empire venue in one of the country’s major cities, Pretoria (Gauteng), which is within easy driving distance from nearby Johannesburg and only a few hours drive from other major centers such as Bloemfontein and Durban. The significance of this show was not only in that ten bands had been selected from eight heats (forty bands in total) held in the coastal cities of Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg (near Durban) and the inland cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, but also in that this is South Africa’s very first entry into the international competition of the Wacken Metal Battle.
Arriving at Arcade Empire, one would instantly have been greeted by a festive atmosphere already begun from early hours. The usual black-clad masses mulling about in anticipation of entertainment to follow began to gather from around lunchtime and seemed to continue swelling right into the night. The show was opened with the appearance of two new bands on the scene serving as something of a hors d’oeuvre to the main feature of the battle, Oculus Ouroboros and Divine Plague. The first played a form of melodic death metal which seemed to include an almost progressive twist, where the second was just balls-to-the-wall death. Both bands were in good shape for their being ‘new’ names to the scene, but it was evident that most members were scene veterans who had prior experience and it would be well to keep an eye out for those names at more shows in the near future. At such an early hour, the audience still seemed a little shy with most people still enjoying the precious hours of warm sunlight on the deck outside (it is presently winter in the southern hemisphere) before the evening chill arrived. Nonetheless, a loyal troop of stalwarts and curious onlookers formed up ranks to enjoy the pre-battle entertainment which concluded as bassists from all of the competing bands arrived to draw time-slots from a hat. This seemed a very fair way of doing things and also ensured a nice attendance for all bands regardless of time.
It was six o’clock when the first band took to the stage in form of Gauteng’s legendary SacriFist. Formed as far back as 1993 and still sporting two founding members, the band kicked just about as much ass as could have been expected from such. The frontman demontrated a strong energy, using every open inch of the stage to come face-to-face with his audience. Long hair, leather pants, hanging chains and chunky boots is the general look of this band, well-suited to their sound. If one could imagine the bastard-child of In Flames bred with Arch Enemy, you would probably have described the band fairly accurately. There were some intense emotional moments as the frontman skillfully introduced each song into context, especially with a powerful song titled “In The Dragons Blood” going out as a dedication to all who have lost loved ones in metal, which probably all of us have at least one or two – but on this night to a popular local metaller referred to as Piet Metallica who passed two weeks prior. SacriFist was definitely victory material and it became clear from the onset that the judges were going be faced with an immensely tough task, and one which would no doubt be met with criticism no matter what the result.
Infanteria, all the way from the most distant city of Cape Town, made this all the more apparent when they followed immediately after. By the end of the night, this would be the band to take the title of 2013 SA finalist to go to Germany, and the set which they delivered clearly showed that they had what it took to meet any other band in the competition head-to-head. What marked Infanteria as something out of the ordinary was their masterfully selected set list of well-written songs. Each song stood its own ground, and each filled to the rafters with deep musical hooks and thrashy riffs, plenty of solos, and vocal lines that stick in ones memory long after the fact. What contributed to the memorable vocals is that the band was almost exclusive on the night in their use of vocals that are not a guttural death growl or scream, but rather the sort of vocals which makes one think at times of guys like Rob Flynn or Dave Mustaine, which allowed the audience to really be drawn into the song lyrics and stories. Of course, this is not always the style of vocals appreciated by the more die-hard of extreme metallers, but they suited the band’s music to perfection which could be described best as a thrash metal band which incorporates some keyboard elements.
Spectral Realm from Johannesburg are a fairly new band on the scene if compared with most of those others partaking in the contest. Nonetheless, they proved to the audience again just why it is that they had made it through to the finals to stand tall amongst other respected names in the underground scene. They look great on stage and deliver a sound closely related to black metal, including some nice keyboard atmospherics; and the lead guitarists style of playing is a definite attention-grabber with its liquid fluidity. Although they did not win, it still stands testament to this band’s quality that they have already become a regional finalist in this competition. Skills on instrumentation is not lacking, but a more powerful audience interaction had already been displayed by the first two bands and it would do well to keep an eye on Spectral Realm‘s continued development in the near future.
In keeping close to the darker sound and genre, Theatre Runs Red were up next and already enjoy a large fanbase from years of activity in the scene, even up in Pretoria although being based out of Durban. The band has an incredibly powerful stage persona, all dressed in amazing costume and with a sound and stage attitude to match. Their look is characterized by corpse paint, leather, steel and blackness to suit their ‘soul’ – which is ironic because the members off-stage are probably some of the most polite and humble you are like to meet; and this just proves what great entertainers they are. Enjoyed largely by black metallers and death metallers alike, and just about anybody else who likes to headbang, Theatre Runs Red had the audience eating out of their hands in no time. By the end of the night it would be obvious that many people would question the choice of the judges, and this remained true for even more bands who followed.
Megalodon were the second of the Cape Town bands to appear. It seems that even up in Gauteng province, word of this band has got around and the sense of anticipation from the audience was palpable as they prepared for their debut in this part of the country. The band boasts 8-string guitars, a technical drummer, and a very able-bodied frontman. Some people would make an immediate reference to Meshuggah when they see Megalodon just off the bat, but after a few songs anybody with ears on their head and no prejudice in their heart will hear that there is much more to this band; despite the obvious influences, they are forging a sound and vibe of their own. Nonetheless, members of the audience clearly enjoyed the performance and Megalodon have certainly made a lot of new fans by coming to Pretoria for the first time. It was especially nice to see members from other participating bands really expressing their enjoyment of the show too.
With the halfway-mark of the night already passed, it was time for Facing The Gallows. This is a band who plays a brand of metal which is extremely popular in their nearby home city of Johannesburg, and they have been doing it fucking well for some years now. Their local leadership in the metalcore side of the spectrum was instantly proven when they took the stage; crowds chanting “F, T, G… F, T, G…” repeatedly as they prepped for the coming show. The rest was pure armageddon. Complete with the first stage dive of the night and the floor area bursting at the seams, it was obvious that if this competition was about crowd support alone then they’d have taken it just like so.
Haggis and Bong is a truly unique act in the local scene featuring a drummer, bassist, three bagpipes, and a more recently (since late-2011) added guitarist. The band is widely celebrated as being extremely entertaining and especially so since adding the guitar; which also relates them much more closely to the metal genre. The lack of a vocalist is quite likely their only shortcoming, although the day is saved in that despite not actually singing anything, Angus Nixon certainly has the charisma of a frontman and uses the mic regularly to communicate well with their fans, helping to establish that all-important bond between audience and band. Also the fact that the members sell a certain heritage is what transports audiences into a parallel universe; the one occupied by heroes like William Wallace (aka: Braveheart) and an army of woad warriors (painted with runes and patterns of blue paint), making them a class act which lends itself to the true nature of live music as an effective escapist form of entertainment. This troupe of Gauteng-based (members spread throughout the greater areas of both Pretoria and Johannesburg), Celtic metal warriors definitely belongs at festive gatherings all over the world, but it can be supposed that being the representative of South African metal at Wacken is not the best-suited circumstance; although it would not be surprising to see them take that road very soon anyway, and without the backing of a competition being necessary.
Bleeding Spawn are based out of Middelburg, a town in the Mpumalanga province which lies east of Gauteng. For a band of isolated origin, they are making great waves in the local underground scene with their brand of brutal death metal. Within the last year or so, Bleeding Spawn have supported Italian metal band Fleshgod Apocalypse throughout South Africa, and also won their way onto the metal stage at Cape Town’s leg of RAMfest via the MK Ondergrond (hosts of Wacken Metal Battle, SA) initiative for that opportunity. They have impressed audiences every step of the way and earned their position in this historic night for local underground metal. Although lacking the stronger local support of a band such as Facing The Gallows, Bleeding Spawn still commanded a legion of metallers into battle in front of their stage and even armed them with pool noodles to motivate the carnage! Indeed, and in remaining true to form, there was actual blood spilled; but the bleeders were only happy to have made such sacrifice in service of their commanders and merely passed it off as “battle scars” before leaping back into the pit. Unfortunately, some bouncers were not quite grasping the concept of what they were witnessing and at least one or two metal warriors were taken as casualties… when very unceremoniously removed from the venue. Fuck!
The last participating band was the third finalist to have made the long journey from Cape Town and presented themselves: Zombies Ate My Girfriend. Whilst not entirely certain about what their costumes represented, except that maybe it was to evoke the vision of random and unlikely members of society thrown together into the common cause of zombie-ing about, the band was enthusiastically welcomed nonetheless. There was nothing zombifying about what they delivered though! This band is tight as hell and boasts an exceptional drummer. Perhaps, however, it was because of lateness of hour combined with the length of day; or perhaps that this was also the first time appearing in front of a new audience – but the crowd had begun to thin a little. Regardless, the band proved their professionalism and blasted out their set as though they were at Wacken already. Alas! Destiny had not granted that this would be their year to go forth in the name of South Africa. With the sound put out by this band’s style, many might agree that playing back-to-back with the more local Facing The Gallows would have kept the right people in the room at the time they performed. In the end, however, we all know that crowd support and/or interaction is only one facet of the judging; proven again by Infanteria who ultimately won, but who also did not enjoy the strongest crowd support on the night.
And that was the end for participating bands. Unfortunately, a fourth finalist from Cape Town was unable to make the pilgrimage, reportedly because of one member who had an unexpected work-related obligation. It was nice to still catch sight of at least one member of Strident in the audience, still having made the trip to support the event and perhaps also to obtain a measure of what their band might otherwise have been up against! Sadly, the night was short of some phantasmal power metal, but that’s just life. To make up for it and whilst the panel of judges disappeared from their raised dias at the back of the venue to go and compare score sheets and slug it out over the results, Agro performed a closing set before the announcement would be made. This band requires no introduction locally, but for non-South African readers, Agro is one of our longest-standing metal acts having begun as early as 1993 (same year as SacriFist who partook in the battle) and have already performed twice at Wacken Open Air (2012 having been the most recent). This just goes to show that although we as a country now have a foot in the door for sending a band annually, there is no reason whatsoever that any quality bands out of this country should not be able to pursue their own journeys to Wacken or any other major festival around the world. What should be considered first is how well-suited the band is to the festival they have their eyes set on, and then to go for it!
All that remains to be said is: what an amazing night! Of course, a big thanks also goes out to the organisers from MK Ondergrond and the MK music channel as well as to the other sponsors for demonstrating their belief in local metal. Energies are at work right now which can only bode well for the future of the genre inside this country, and its burning desire to bust out and cross borders. To all the bands, a big “well done” and “keep up the great work” is due. To Infanteria, “Go forth and make us proud!” The question now is if those who were unsuccessful in 2013 will return stronger in future years or if they will fade into the abyss of time; but this is what only time itself will tell. Until next year!
Follow a few links to learn more about these bands! These lead to their facebook pages where you can ‘like’ them, or find further links to music:
Infanteria – Wacken Metal Battle: South Africa – 2013 finalist
Bleeding Spawn – Durban heat 1 finalist (tied)
Facing The Gallows – Johannesburg heat 3 finalist
Haggis and Bong – Johannesburg heat 2 finalist
Megalodon – Cape Town heat 3 finalist (tied)
SacriFist – Pretoria heat 1 finalist
Spectral Realm – Johannesburg heat 1 finalist
Strident – Cape Town heat 3 finalist (tied)
Theatre Runs Red – Durban heat 1 finalist (tied)
Zombies Ate My Girlfriend – Cape Town heat 2 finalist
Agro – guest closer
Divine Plague – guest opener
Oculus Ouroborus – guest opener
Event affiliates and sponsors:
Wacken Metal Battle – International Competition
MK – Music Channel
MK Ondergrond! – Television Show and SA hosts to Wacken Metal Battle
Red Heart Rum
Photographs courtesy of:
Headbone Photography – SacriFist
Henk Steyn Photography – all other pictures
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