By Natalie Zed
Every once in a while there is a concert line-up that makes you do a double take. The bands are so perfect for each other and the show so expertly curated that you almost can’t believe that it is going to happen. This line-up was exactly that almost-too-good-to-be-true show: three excellent bands with complementary aesthetics, all of whom I’ve been following for a while and actively looking forward to seeing live. My expectations for this show were astronomically high, but the stellar performances the crowd at the Hard Luck Bar were treated to exceeded even my hopes.
First up were “witch thrash” metallers Castle. Based in San Francisco, Castle have ties to Toronto (where drummer Al McCartney lives) and often come to the city to write, rehearse and perform. The band were originally conceived of as a solo project for guitarist/vocalist Mat Castle, until he met his wife, bassist and primary vocalist Elizabeth Blackwell. With Blackwell and McCartney, Castle found himself a permanent line-up. Castle have released two albums within a year of each other: In Witch Order, in Spring 2011, and now Blacklands. The energy and drive in their music, as well as their performance, are palpable. While Mat Castle has said that he had the songs for Castle’s debut written for years before they were recorded, Blacklands came much quicker, and that enthusiasm translated into their show, which had a raw, almost wild quality to it. Their classic metal riffs are combined with occult-themed lyrics and smoky, abrasive distortion. The instruments scrape against you, and with Blackwell’s voice following like a balm, both soothing and astringent. Their set was tight but unhurried, unfolding like the dread wings of a terror bird. I had waited a long time to see them live and was very pleased that their show more than matched their recorded material. I have heard rumours that they will be playing more shows in Toronto this summer, and I certainly hope this is the case.
Next up were Blood Ceremony, who’ve held my heart in leather-gloved and incense-scented hands for some time. They combine occult-influenced, hard-edged riff structures with acerbic interpretations of pagan themes and folk tales. Alia O’Brien’s caustically sweet and powerful voice is a crucial aspect of their sound, cutting through the complex instrumentation like acid scouring a metal surface. Her flute solos and swelling organ chords also add tremendously to Blood Ceremony’s sound and character. O’Brien urged the crowd to pack in around the stage, cooing, “We can’t cast a spell on you if you stand so far away.” Their set was tight and to the point, exploring the spookier, more sinister parts of their repertoire, ending with a positively hair-raising rendition of “Oliver Haddo.” Every time I see them, I fall a little more in love with them.
The final set of the night was performed by Oregonian doom-metallers Witch Mountain. Their most recent album, Cauldron of the Wild, is positively tremendous, a passionate, twangy, Southern-inspired edifice of doom metal that’s unquestionably going to find a place on my year-end list. The riffs tremble under their weight, projecting a fretful type of discomfort in the tone, like a huge animal shaking filth from its coat. They played the entirely of their latest album, as well as a single track off their previous release, “Wing of the Lord,” from South of Salem. Uta Plotkin’s voice needs to be heard to be believed. Her range is effortless and supple, but the tone of her voice stays heavy, like a cloud swollen with rain — or maybe the slight hoarseness of tears. The throbbing urgency of “Beekeeper” was extraordinary, but it was the swooping, mournful notes of “Aurelia” that stole the show. The band are captivating enough to make listening to an 11-minute song purely pleasurable and entirely immersive. It was one of those rare sets I willed not to end, one that sent me over to the merch table babbling like a complete idiot about how much I loved them. Witch Mountain are the rare band capable of stripping away all their audience’s guile and pretense, leaving only the emotional experience. It is terrifying and thrilling, and I cannot wait to see them again.