You see them. Your people. A few on the bus, all exit at the same stop, start the walk up the hill. Hoodies with patches adorned, the tell-tale scrawl hieroglyphics of black and death metal bands. Long, long hair. That calm yet commanding demeanour of metalheads and those of similar ilk. Feels like a pilgrimage. It is. But there is nothing holy here; I am no virginal disciple. I am a heap of rotten flesh stuffed into a young body-bag, flailing frantically to find the zipper and release the truth of what I am: putrefact. This gathering is the hand that reaches around, finds the pull and undoes the row of meeting teeth that hold you together. Welcome to your wretched undoing. Welcome to Covenant.
COVENANT V – NIGHT 1
The moment I walk in, I can’t stop smiling. Perfection chants in my head. This is perfection. A long rectangular hall, stage at the far end. A woman stands on stage, screaming. Not hysteria but perfect control. A focused scream. Perfection. The hall is gymnasium style, flashbacks of grade seven dances certainly tenable. But that is utterly forgotten. Smoke floods the space, ghosts of incense commemorate the evening. Everyone draped in black, a band shirt plethora, the visual currency of outcastery. There are generations here: some white beards dyed only by decades, some soft faces newly escaped from the Mordor of adolescence. Whatever it is that births people like us, the millenial age and the tech revolution have not destroyed it.
Vendors line the hall, lamps shining onto the desecrated objects for sale, be it esoterica or band merch. In this unworldly marketplace I feel as much awe as I have at the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, or the crowded markets of rural Kerala. I have taken the bus 20 minutes but may as well be abroad, and surely there are stranger objects here: animal skulls, books on alchemy and dark magick, human ribs and vertebrae. You forget it’s a warm summer evening in an expensive city populated by hipsters and rich yoga moms. In this relaxed air, people are at home. We cannot separate the sameness of opposites. In sacrilege we find the sacred. Pilgrimage indeed. Whether you know it or not, you yearn for this.
The vocalist on stage keeps screaming, the accompanying keyboardist devout. They have ended my enshacklement to the tedium of the everyday. I surrender to the Truth of Howl. Oh to hear a woman scream. I mean this with affection for her sacrifice, not sadism for her agony. She screams on my behalf. The vibration is intense, my neck shakes, and is sliced. Ah, she screams. We share an aural umbilical cord and she’s voicing all my horrors. The beautiful smell of smoke, the candelabra on stage aside the singer glowing, ah. Eventually, her voice becomes operatic. The lyrics love is disillusion singe the air. My throat is tight. A synth organ sounds. This music wouldn’t be out of place in a cathedral. Isn’t that the Wise Hall tonight? Cathedral Damnation. The Covenant flag hangs humble behind the performers. How is it one feels so at home amid terror and darkness than pop melodies and sunshine? The Mother Tongue of so many strangers: screams.
They finish. I make my way to the washrooms. I worry my festival bracelet absorbs a drop of piss as I pat myself dry. Well, Hail Satan. I open the door quickly, surprising a beautiful bald woman, face luminous as a full moon, she smiles in surprise. The smile of this she-devil is glorious.
A new act. This is seduction. This is a lovers tongue entering your dark rose-wet cave. Yes my friends, music can feel like this. They collectively caress that clitoral audience before them, rhythmic bodies shaking with the songs they have necromanced. The ground reverberates beneath me. Another feeling emerges, one of pride. I look upon these creatures, grown men, so committed to their craft, smiths forging gold from their own turbulent viscera. I am swept away on the wings of these dragons, I am riding through the sky. Cerulean world abounds, coniferous forest beneath.
Someone throws a can into the bin beside me. He walks over to check that it didn’t ricochet onto the ground. I am touched. Who says social degenerates aren’t considerate? I look across the crowd, faces entranced, death disciples receiving condemned communion. Brilliance.
The difference between listening to metal live versus recorded is perhaps a greater gulf than any other genre of music. It is a corporeal genre. Feel. Feel. To know you are real requires being physically moved. This is why abuse is often preferable to solitude. Here, instead of harm, instead of drawing blood, it is kept inside and rumbled with sonic waves. I press my body against the stage. The drums play me.
I blink. It is late. I work in the morning. I am back in the world, the fluorescent lighting of a city bus guiding my eyes around the normalcy. Someone yells out the window at a pedestrian. A hunched over man in a camouflage bomber jacket eats Doritos out of the bag. He has worn out Coach running shoes that scream stolen. The world where I return.
COVENANT V – NIGHT 2
Before the music, people chat, shop the market. Yet many stand facing the stage, just waiting. Such obedience in such a defiant culture. In the end, I suppose it’s just choose your altar. A woman paints on a canvas propped on the stage as a band plays. An eye? A volcano? The minutes upcoming will tell. (Isn’t that all Time does: tell?) Performers are blindfolded with black gauze/mesh. Though the painting has evolved, the surroundings could be lashes or shrubbery. It is an eye or a mountain? Mountains, the earth gazing upwards to the stars. Are mountains not the eyes of the world? (Am I really this pretentious?)
I step outside for fresh air and remnants of light. The walk up to the Wise Hall is one of my favourite parts. Apt that it is atop a hill, the urban coven a little removed from busling hippie streets of this neighbourhood. At the park a block down, children and parents play. It is strange to think of childhood, a time before the life that mutilated me. Run, sweet gremlins, run now in your gleeful play, laugh and be free, because one day this ends. Lifes’ fire will disfigure you. And maybe then, they will join us, will they play on the Wise Hall stage at Covenant XVI? I end my demented musings and head back up the hill, the sky turning amethyst. “He puked on the painting.” someone says, walking out of the hall. Eye or mountain, I will never know.
The night gets going with the second act. Killer drums is the first thing you notice. Pearl kit, a cinderblock affront the main drum. I feel the tormented corpse in me awaken, this dancer on coals, she moves through me and I am ignited. The inner realm is vast and though our own, always needs initiation from an external summoning. Only the stage holds to magic to unblock my dark channels. Beside me, an ocean of delicate, appreciative head nods, quite different than headbanging.
These are sorcerers admiring skilled incantation. The guitarist plants his feet flat, he does not move or shuffle around. Absorbing power through rooting himself to the altar. The guitar ceases to be separate from the musician, and he sings with his hand and metallic vocal chords. He has a face-mouth and a hand-mouth. The incense begins to burn. Covenant V is getting closer to its zenith.
Summoning ancestors, ancient tongues. What a gift. A group which summoned itself back from near disappearance. Communion with the audience, inviting, sharing, feeding us hungry souls the spoils of their tilled and stolen soil. Audience yells “time for another album.” Everyone basks in affection.
Again, smiths at the forge, male bodies electric. Violent, tantric, you are with devil spirit. They come from caves with armies, soldiers rhythmic assault. War and orgy. A mucosal feeling in the crowd, in that we are brought together in some mordial ooze. There is fucking inside your heart, your heart pounded upon by phallus of collective creation. Somehow, you feel hands caress your face. The chest cavity shakes. Then the ground like a death rattle. If this is death, let me transcend. Sweat soaking their hair, the scent fills the hall, merges with incense.
I move from the front to the centre of the crowd. They look calm yet possessed. Ascended disciples. Darkness enshrouds each player, emitting not light, but something as visible and entrancing.
There is something undeniably tender in all this. Family coming home.
I am beheaded over and over again, my body command a head grow in order to enjoy the honour of decapitation. Suddenly the sensation transforms: now swords push through my neck and body, I am kept in tact, but spliced from many angles. To be stabbed again and again, yes, we can enjoy pleasures of the flesh without the physical harm – only metaphysical harm. But it is not harm. How can destruction make you feel whole?
The clink/chime of cymbals are as though pins pushed into you, perfect sharpness. Nothing is blunt, mutilation is perfection. Easy peasy. Pins. Voices are duct tape over your eyes and mouth. The relief from the senses! Instead, only shock. The shock of experiencing the bellowing bowels of another. Rollercoaster of intestines. We become shit and are grateful, because it is greater than the singular quotidian bodies we regularly are.
The shock of being saved when you didn’t expect it, it didn’t realize you needed it. Projections, cloaks, green, camo, where am I? Where are they? Like being launched into space, and through suffocation, a part of you breathes for the first time.
COVENANT V – NIGHT III
Tonight is different. The creature has emerged from the mucus fully formed, like Saurons’ Uruk Hai, ready to be harvested and summoned. But we are not warriors organizing ourselves for battle. Mundane daily life is the battle. This is congregating after the fact to honour the sacrifice and celebrate the spoils. Less and less, this feels demonic. Or my flimsy idea of what demonic is no longer serves. Such comfort among the citizens of this underworld. The benefits of a small city, a small scene, but also I think a universal understanding exists in metal and underground: the genres are universal orphanages. We know each other.
The long slow rousing drum, vibrations lull you, walking, wading into still water. We stand and dark liquid envelopes us. Body temperature, you can barely tell that you’re surrounded. I wish I could be set afloat on this strange river, the birthplace I never knew I had.
Discoballs, chandeliers, fernels. String lights.
Young women ponder buying human bones. I fear such an investment myself, who knows whose they were, how they died. I do not need a vertebrae or jaw at home resenting me. My own flesh bears enough hatred.
Backstage. I have never seen drummers warm-up. It’s a beautiful thing. A large bald man in a wife beater closes his eyes and drums in the air. Later I see him with a small drum pad. He is serene, the focus of a child, the focus of a master. The champion shadow boxing before the bout. This is human worship at its finest.
Oh, backstage is backstage. Theatre or music, high school or professional, it’s the same. My heart explodes. Chatter, anxiety, flirting, chips, mismatched tables and cabinets, an old piano, stacks of chairs, coats and bags flung around, an ocean of instruments, half-empty cans, a mini fridge, dressing mirrors, always the same.
This abrasive music has the comfort of a warm bed and soft sheets. Why does it feel like love?
They are a crucifix for us upon which to nail our horrors. Thank you.
Appreciation. Flawlessness. The cervical vetebrae of the hall undulating like a pendulum. Megalith of sound. Genuine cadence, the architecture of velocity, rage, and chaos, all these elements compliment by discerning choice. Dew of morning.
Backstage. Surprising absence of coffee, a few takeout cups on the table. They emit their beautiful scent, couvetted elixir brought forth from scalding water and crushed powder of earth pods. Is this not art, not music, the scalding passage of time extracting from us something bitter yet valuable? I scan the green room. Some organizers take a well earned selfie. The room itself is nearly empty. Beyond the wall, the ceremony endures. Sagging leather couches, bottles, cans, chips, amps, guitars that have travelled the world, tables pushed to one side. Backstage is backstage.
Near the end, I am overcome with sadness. Dead Congregation instills the lifeforce with stamina, whereas each day in the office, on the train, in the true dead congregation of society at large, we must endure our corpse laiden lives. Bursts of death-life of black metal amid quotidian decay. I must wait another year to breathe. The ultimate mediation.
Yet sadness is given comfort in knowing I can keep this moment inside of me, the sealed sarcophagus of Covenant, until again revived. This is beyond a good memory. I can hold the very thing itself precious and dear.
Applause, smoke, the peeling away of the event at large. All I am left with: gratitude.