Reptile Master /w Heave Blood and Die @ Bastard Bar, Tromsø
A wet Saturday evening in Tromsø sees a decent crowd pack into the dim underground space of the Bastard Bar to witness two local doom metal acts: Heave Blood and Die and Reptile Master, both bands signed to North Norway label Blues for the Red Sun. Yob‘s Marrow is playing as I entered the venue, which seems a good sign of things to come. Despite the bar’s “Hippies Must Use Back Door” sign, a fair number of long-haired and bearded types seem to have somehow snuck in to fill the place up well towards capacity: the air warm and humid, the bar elbow to elbow and seating space hard to find.
The music doesn’t kick off until around 11.30pm, and when it does it is without announcement or fanfair. First act up are young quintet (or maybe sextet?) Heave Blood and Die, who with no fuss storm in with Plague, a bluesy stoner jam. My very first thought is that they have some unusual influences for a doom band, with the lead guitarist Mads Ystmark sporting a Cancer Bats vest and bassist/main vocalist Karl Pedersen setting out with the kind of hoarse yells that wouldn’t sound out of place in a hardcore band. And in fact Pedersen also fronts hard rock band Auto Pilots, Ystmark is vocalist for “polar punk” outfit The Wolves, and the two also split vocals in surf-punk act Beach Bitches.
The band play tightly, drummer Kenneth Mortensen driving things forward with precise, competent rhythm work, though a couple of unshowy breaks aside you feel that he’s a little under-worked here. While a workmanlike drummer is not a bad thing to have, I get the impression he could probably do more if given the chance. Guitarist Jonas Kuivalainen also seems content to stand well back, playing second fiddle to Ystmark‘s big stage presence and solos. But the group put on a good show with plenty of variety in the songs, from the psych-jam opener to the desert-scented space rock instrumental A Letter to Mr. Curtis, as well as the intriguing De Som Drukna i Snystormen (Those Who drowned In Snowstorms); a slow, menacing instrumental repetition accompanying the low, hellish-sounding spoken word vocals of Lars Dalheim.
The shared vocal duties are something I’d like to see more of with this band. Pedersen clearly relishes his task, stomping and grimacing as he delivers his lyrics. These are mostly unintelligible in fine doom tradition, and what I can pick out is probably better off not understood: “I’m so afraid to lose you/Because I confuse you”. But his vocal work could use a little improvement, missing the power that a band of this volume needs, and towards the end of the set it seems like he might be losing his voice. Ystmark provides brief but powerful shouts on closer Krokodil, yelling with a confidence and control that Pedersen still lacks. Krokodil is also the only song of the set from the band’s eponymous 2016 album (via BFTRS records) – all other songs are new material for their next release, scheduled 2017.
Such teething problems aside, Heave Blood and Die are a very entertaining band with an energy and enthusiasm that is great to watch. At times their instrumental passages evoke shades of Earthless or Mammatus, while you can catch the odd taste of Goatsnake in the vocals and bluesy arrangements. They clearly enjoy their work too, exchanging jokes and smiles between songs. Synth player Marie Mikkelsen especially looks like she’s having fun; dancing along to the riffs as she taps out organ-like drones and horror movie stabs on her Moog, adding a slightly unusual but welcome tone to the traditional drum/guitar/bass instrumentation. Heave Blood and Die are a band that still seems to be finding their sound, a little raw and uncertain as yet, but one who I’d see again and whose next release I look forward to.
With a name like Reptile Master, you might be expecting a band with heavy Sleep influences, and you’d be right. But not in the way you’d probably expect: this isn’t the big stoner riffs and weed infused mysticism of Holy Mountain and Dopesmoker, but rather the rawer, downbeat misery of precursor band Asbestosdeath, and Sleep‘s unfairly forgotten first album, Volume One. Reptile Master have been likened to both sadly defunct blackened noise outfit Indian and prolific, anarchic sludge/doomsters Thou, apt enough comparisons for the mood of their music, as is the aggressively nihilistic sludge of Primitive Man. However this isn’t the all-out wall of noise and screaming hate of those bands. Though the quintet can put such tactics to good use at times, I especially appreciated their use of more quiet, brooding passages, even silence, to break up and heighten the periods of violence. Italian masters of the creepy doom build-up Ufomammut are a clear influence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if fellow purveyors of hellish and chaotic atmospherics Unearthly Trance or the depressing enviropunk grief of Noothgrush weren’t also on RM‘s communal playlist.
The band’s twin bassists/vocalists Nicolay Østvold and Rolf Jenssen contribute both despairing vocals and a thunderous bottom end, playing off against one another and occasionally coming together in brief shared passages. It’s not your typical duet: two big bearded guys screaming into each other’s faces across arrayed mics and axes, and not exactly much in the way of saccharine harmonies or adoring gazes. But it works, Jenssen‘s harsh, higher scream complementing Østvold‘s more guttural growling, and both giving strong, emotive performances. Bassists as front-men aren’t entirely unusual in doom, but these two really take over the stage, with guitarists Øystein Johansen and Markus Andreassen hiding in the wings both figuratively, their atmospheric melodies adding an interesting but subtle layer to the dominating bassline, and physically, as they seem more comfortable in the deep shadows of the back and sides of the stage than in what little light Reptile Master allow for their performance. Steinar Haugan on drums, however, does not want to be forgotten, and gives the bassists some competition for the audience’s attention. Slow and patient when he needs to be, his bass kicks and cymbals act at times as simple punctuation to the music’s phrasing. But Haugan also has experience playing death metal and thrash with former bands Dienamic and Pushing Device, and it shows here as he plays with flair, keeping your attention with little embellishing rolls and flicks, and when given the opportunity is quite capable of taking the lead in the band’s sound.
For some reason the crowd thins out rapidly once Reptile Master begins playing, which is a shame, because it’s a great show. The band kick off with a slow, stripped back track lead by Jenssen’s powerful vocal work, then segue into a slow, earthshaking version of Verdict, a song from their 2015 album, In the Light of a Sinking Sun (via BFTRS records). Like Heave Blood and Die, the band are playing mainly new material today, as this song is one of only two in their set available on record. I don’t know whether it is past people’s bed times or if they prefer the ’90s cheese in the bar next door to RM‘s brand of heavy bleakness, but when I look around at the end of this song the place seems half empty. Those who remain, however, are deeply into it, with enthusiastic applause between songs and the audience swaying, hypnotized, during. It’s not all misery and gloom either, with a swinging groove underlying several songs and an extended stoner jam breaking out towards the end of the set. Minor guitar problems aside, the band put on a strong and well polished performance, playing with power and emotion, and working well together. There isn’t much in the way of audience interaction, but then this is after all a doom show, and both bands hang around the venue for another drink or two afterwards, seemingly knowing half the bar.
“Everyone is in a doom band in Tromsø”, I was told after the show. I can’t say for sure if that’s true, but certainly the scene here is both more active and more popular than you might expect for a city of 75,000 far in the Arctic north. When you think Nordic doom, you tend to think Finland: home to trad and funeral pioneers like Spiritus Mortis, Skepticism and Thergothon, as well as such scene heavyweights as Reverend Bizarre and Shape of Despair. Norway is usually more strongly associated with black metal, and whether Tromsø will one day take its place alongside such famous doom cities as home of sludge, New Orleans, USA, or Sabbath‘s hallowed birthplace of Birmingham, UK, remains to be seen. But these two bands are certainly making a good go of it.
Written by: nothingventu.red
Photo credit: Emīls Vilcāns