THE COVENANT LIVES!
Among all the things involved in putting together this account of Covenant 2018– the article outlining, the draft edits, the irreparable hearing loss and brain damage, etc. — the greatest challenge lay in deciding what I might say first about it. Not only that, but sheltering that choice from further urges to go back and revise. There was a lot packed into those three days, and so much of it is worth talking about. Such as things are, I doubt this article could ever feel satisfactorily comprehensive, never quite as good, as I’d like it to be. On the other hand, that brand of perfectionism tends to feel a lot like a dress rehearsal for one of the milder Circles of Hell, where it’s grey and nothing ever really happens– a quiet torment designed for those damned souls deemed too mediocre to even suffer fashionably.
With that in mind, I think the best thing to say first is that everything in this article is hideously limited in perspective, biased by design, and imperfect out of necessity. Of course all music writing is technically subjective to begin with, but with this article I wouldn’t try to have some pretence of authority– at least no more authority than anyone else that was present for it. The article’s scope is necessarily bound by my experience; at the same time I’ve done what I can to cover all of the broadest points as I saw them.
If anything at all, I hope I’ve been able to capture the broad spirit of what Covenant IV was like. I had a great time, and reflecting on the experience while writing only made the memories sweeter. Still, in the event I’ve made some grave sin of omission; I hope whichever Circle I’m banished to burns warm and snuggy.
Grab a drink.
PART I: PRELUDE TO COVENANT IV
Hours before the doors opened on Thursday, I was reminded of something obvious, though no less startling: Covenant Fest has been running now for four years. Four years is a long time. Counting the folk-oriented “Denouement” nights, there have now been enough Covenant Fests to fill out two weeks if you linked them up as one, and that’s without taking its younger Atlantic counterpart into consideration. I’ve had the good fortune of being there every year to date, and while the number might seem small in light of all the Covenant have achieved, it begged a moment’s pause when I realized how much else in life had changed in that time.
The Covenant has established itself by now as a Vancouver staple; certainly the most significant force in the local metal community, and wielding due respect from onlookers abroad. For myself and many others, it’s become a yearly tradition, a recurring madness to look forward to as the months grow hottest. Depending on who you ask, the Summertime could mean fun in the sun, beach parties, drinking iced tea, and mowing the lawn. For this circle in Vancouver, the summer schedule’s come to include shortening your life expectancy with unhinged mania and wargrinding fukk. In other words; business as fucking usual.
Anticipation for Covenant IV arguably started a few hours after Covenant III wrapped up last year. Although the success of Covenant Montreal has taken a share of the hype, it was fairly common for Covenant speculations to arise in conversation in the year in-between– particularly in the months leading up after bands had been announced. The festival’s (as always entertaining) Facebook event page always had something new to announce. The full lineup was impressive once fully revealed, and the fest headliners standing out as particularly strong catches.
As with previous years, there was a share of bands that had to cancel. The presence of Black Witchery was sorely missed, although Hacavitz, who took their place, actually turned out to be the highlight of CovIV. There’s always been an air of chance and uncertainty leading up to a Covenant. A few bands inevitably drop out, others surprisingly jump in. The best one can do is to keep fingers crossed for certain bands, but the end result’s never been anything short of outstanding.
By the week of the festival, it seemed to be all that people were talking about– that is the sort of hype that can’t be bought by PR or ad campaigning. There was a pre-fest vinyl night the weekend before at Pat’s Pub, right down the street from the venue. With all the buzz, I was surprised how empty it was. It turned out to be pretty fun regardless– it’s not every day you get to see a cozy pub cleared out with Triumph Through Spears of Sacrilege blasting at high volume. I guess that proves Walt Disney right: sometimes dreams do come true.
When the day finally arrived, we were all ready for chaos…
PART II: STORMING CHRIST’S KINGDOM
(THURSDAY, JUNE 21)
The first night felt surprisingly barren in the first half, though it might have seemed packed at the sort smaller venues Night I has usually been held in the past. Opening duties were entrusted to Vomiit– a name you can say with your hand in your mouth if you try hard enough. This was their first show as a band, though certainly not as musicians– for those sharing duties in Firecult, it’s not even their first time opening a Covenant.
Coming across essentially as “Finite does Arizmenda” musically, Vomiit kicked off the fest at some of its most physically animated. The music was good, but the performance is what sold it. Vomiit had a real will to provoke, beginning with Michael the vocalist writing a mean word on his stomach that looked an awful lot like “RAPE,” and arguably culminating when he started spitting fucking crickets at people like it was a Satanic LARP of Pinocchio or something. Is it silly? No shit it is, but it’s that same sort of self-conscious edge that’s been at the forefront of this music since people decided to start sniffing dead birds for fun– and long before that too. I give this emphasis because it’s that sort of no-fucks theatricality that makes for weird and twisted memories, and I kind of wish there had been more of that eccentricity at the fest.
The set from Victoria’s Human Agony was a closer indication of the general Covenant IV vibe. Gas masks and blasting noise following the footsteps of some of the bands later on that weekend. Graveolence after that were about as decent, although I found it interesting that the relatively slight difference of their deathgrind angle and plainclothes performance set them apart from the others.
Speaking relatively, Graveolence had a more lively, fun sort of tone that is maximized the times I’ve seen them on a small stage. It’s weird there’s such contrast in tone; the music itself ran fest par in chaotic noise.
I’m pretty sure Auroch is among very few bands I’ve probably seen ten times in about as many years. What I like is how they’ve managed to outdo the standard they set for themselves each time. There’s no doubt by this point they’re one of Vancouver’s world-class exports in death metal, like its companion project Mitochondrion in that regard, although with Mito I’ve never had the sense what it must be like to get rabies and attempt suicide-by-cop. Auroch’s material is a whirlwind already, and the stage presence translates it with greater viciousness.
Black Witchery’s cancellation meant the classic USBM fix rested ultimately with Profanatica. They’ve never really been my bag, but I was genuinely excited to see them. It’s something special when a band can come across as so fucking absurd, yet totally authentic. From the atmosphere to the performance, Profanatica exuded old school Satanic theatricality.
Although I figure they probably would have been booked for a club-sized venue at a standalone show, Profanatica do a surprisingly good job of making an open theatre space their own. One issue above any that bothered the first night was the shoddy sound quality. With Profanatica, whether the sound got better or worse depends on your view of guitar tones that sound like they’ve been implanted with wasp larvae. I think it was great, honestly, and I was surprised how well they culminated the first evening.
PART III: VANCOUVER BECOMING GOLGOTHA
(FRIDAY, JUNE 22)
By the point of arrival, Friday was already looking a lot bigger than the first night. Among all second night acts, I was most anticipating Sorguinazia, for reasons their 2016 demo could convey better than I ever could. The dread surreal imbalance come across immensely live, and I was reminded of the atmospheric effect during Sortilegia’s set from last year’s fest. The atmosphere returned to ground when Ahna took stage. I’ve always really liked them anytime I’ve seen them. I think the close quarters experience of their Red Gate show circa Covenant II was a better suit for the sort of death-infused crust they play, but they play fast and filthy enough to have fit right in with this year too.
Hellfire Deathcult deliver war metal in its straight, most unadulterated form. One of Covenant IV’s more distant visitors from Chicago, it wasn’t so long ago they played the same stage, having opened the historic Archgoat/Blasphemy show in 2017. The first time I saw them, I found them competent but inspired; I’d probably say the same thing about their Black Death Terroristic Onslaught from earlier this year as well.
I had to reconsider my stance after being really impressed by the wisdom and character of an interview they did some months back. I wouldn’t say my opinion on the music itself has changed much, although I was impressed this time by how well they command the stage.
Then a pair of witches. Portland’s Witchvomit was one of the bands I’d heard nothing from prior to going in, but their atmospheric take on old school death metal was a perfect fit for the curated style of Covenant– not to mention ideal support for Incantation. With Witches Hammer, I was thinking an old-school speed metal band would feel out of place in the fest. Not so.
Like Ahna, Witches Hammer got over any chance of being singled out for their style on the merit of the sonic filth they inject into it. They had a ton of stage energy for a band that’s been gone so long. Covenant has been host to a few returning sleeping giants; even if I had no expectations from the band going in, special events like that are what make something like Covenant feel as significant as it does.
One way a festival might be judged lies in how the experience of the bands all come together. In this, Covenant IV struck gold getting Profanatica and Incantation under the same banner. Incantation have weathered the years the best of the old USDM heavyweights; John McEntee’s the only original member left but some Ship of Theseus argument needn’t apply when the authentic energy comes through as well as it did on the Friday.
Incantation’s performance felt like the biggest set the Covenant has ever put forward, the closest to the feeling of a classic fun metal show, without the usual underground severity.
I think part of the sense of “letting loose” stems from the fond memories listening to Incantation records as a teenager and subsequently losing my mind; the nostalgic charge gave it the feeling of something extra. Watching them within the context of the fest, too, underlined how legendary they really are. Many bands within Covenant owe something of their sound to Incantation’s — how fitting that the second night ended by returning to the source.
PART IV: FALLEN ANGEL OF DOOM RETURNS
(SATURDAY, JUNE 23)
I can always rely on Covenant Fest’s lineup for a list of superb black/death upcomers. Goathammer and Gloam were the two previously unknown newcomers that managed to knock me over unawares– I had a similar experience the year before with Brulvahnatu. Goathammer loaded their filthy black metal with some of the best stage presence of the fest. Gloam played a noticeably more melodic strain of black metal with unexpected progressive undertones. Both bands were further proof that it pays to be there from the start for these bills. The theatre was already pretty packed by the start of the third night.
Next was Weregoat, who have become a frequent sight in Vancouver, not least of all through their participation in Covenants past. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen them at this point, but they’ve been consistently successful in bringing about their murderous caveman atmosphere. They would get my vote as the most musical and enjoyably listenable band in the current wave of war metal– and that doesn’t mean a whiff against their violent atmosphere.
Antichrist helped stoked the flames of Covenant as a fest of rare appearances; a local name whose limited recorded output made them underground legends. That history is a lot like Witches Hammer. The music’s a lot more like Blasphemy though– something that applies to several in CovIV’s lineup (not least its headliner!) Antichrist did a solid job, although I wonder if the concentration of war bands made their set less punishing than it might have otherwise. I actually think their Sacrament of Blood LP is the strongest release to come from RBC; but when it comes to playing live, there’s not some unique angle to Antichrist’s performance like I can pinpoint for Weregoat or Blasphemy. All the same, it was satisfying to have seen them play.
Hacavitz were announced shortly after Black Witchery dropped off the bill. Big shoes to fill. For a long time, I’d only been peripherally aware of them, and didn’t know much except that a) they’re from Mexico, and b) friends spoke well of their music. Fortune blows in mysterious ways. Their set turned out to be the best of the fest– in fact, one of the best Covenant has ever lay host to. Fucking phenomenal. I’ve since listened to a couple of their records and enjoyed them, but Hacavitz is clearly the sort of band that knows how to manifest real magic in their performances. Black and death done right.
Given the war metal throughline across every fest incarnation, there’s not a band in the world that fits the role of Covenant headliner as Blasphemy does. This was my third time in five years seeing them– once a year and a half ago in the same theatre with Archgoat, one back in 2013 in Calgary. They’ve always been the sort of band that commanded my respect for their history and authenticity; I could still never understand the rabid adulation fans have for Fallen Angel of Doom. Yeah; any reservations are out the fucking window anytime I’ve seen Blasphemy play live. They have a genuinely dangerous atmosphere on stage, and after a festival of bands owing much to them in style, the live energy reminds me what a unique entity they are. It’s probably best they played last too– the crowd went a notch up in mania and it all fed back into the atmosphere. This may have been the strongest set I’ve ever seen from Blasphemy– and that is saying a lot.
PART V: AS THE DUST SETTLES…
COVENANT IV HANGOVERVIEW
Following the three days of Covenant IV, the Lord’s Day of Rest was well-timed. I, like everyone else, spent the better part of Sunday scraping my brain off the floor after everything. Seventeen bands is a lot to take in one weekend, and even if I thought I’d had my fill by the end, that unique feeling of post-fest depression doesn’t take long to kick in and make you wish you were still in the midst of it.
What was Covenant IV in a word? Satisfying, for starters. It satisfied in all the ways I’ve come to expect from Covenant. Expectations were met, and a few pleasant surprises were tossed in for good measure. There is no doubt that it outreached the scope of the year before. A lot of the exhilaration arose from the jaw-dropping selection of headliners CovIV had on offer.
With Revenge headlining Covenant last year, booking Blasphemy clearly upped the ante. Profanatica and Incantation both felt perfectly attuned to the Covenant character; something feels inherently historic in bringing the two bands together under a common banner. Hacavitz perhaps felt most special of all; they’re not a band we probably would have seen here otherwise, and I found their set to be the most emotionally charged and significant of the entire fest.
There’s always the question with an event like this, how to improve and expand it each year. It can be tricky to pinpoint with something as underground-focused as this; increasingly “bigger bands” wouldn’t take long before it really deterred, and I doubt Covenant Fest is in the firing line for energy drink sponsorships. If judged by its cohesion and memorable tightness, Covenant IV succeeded, matched only by CovII in 2016.
If Covenant Montreal has benefited from a more metropolitan selection of bands, Vancouver’s edition is distinguished by its specialization. More than any one thing, Covenant IV felt like a veneration of the city’s scene itself. Witches Hammer, Antichrist and Blasphemy all shone light on the city’s legendary past, and the local younger blood proved a formidable force amidst the imported talent. Part of the promise of Covenant Fest lies in its effect on the notoriety of Vancouver’s scene to the underground abroad. Covenant IV served as reminder that the scene’s already plenty notorious as is.
PART VI: CRITICISMS AND OBSERVATIONS
There’s an element of the uncanny and miraculous behind any successful fest. Covenant is no different, though the miracle gets easier to predict every time they deliver an experience like this. The organizers’ increasing confidence in pooling these events together is apparent. From an outsider’s perspective, CovIV was the smoothest-running operation to date. I didn’t feel that CovIV was bogged down by anything too significant. The experience was great on the whole, so I thought it best to throw all criticisms and nitpicks here at once, all with the blanket understanding that they pale against all of the good. Add “Alas! No perfect vvorld…” to the start of following points wherever necessary.
One of the coolest things about Covenant in years past was its tradition of showcasing immersive ambient sets– a tradition CovIV broke away from to its own detriment. The ambient artists calibrated the festival’s atmosphere in a way that felt missing this year. I have strong past memories of sets from Randal Collier-Ford and The Nausea amidst the metal fare. For whatever reason it didn’t happen this time, I think the fest could have been more effective if they’d kept the ambient element. You don’t appreciate a respite fully until it’s gone.
Sound quality felt like a recurring issue over the weekend, most notably on the Thursday. I think there’s only so much you can expect from a venue that size. As noisy as this music is to begin with, it feels washed out further by the theatre resonance. Notably, although mixing was never great, it was significantly better by the third evening.
Regarding the venue, I have a love-hate attitude towards the Rickshaw Theatre as the festival host. One the one, it’s comfortably spacious, easily accessible, with arguably the best staff in a Vancouver venue. The sound’s not even so bad with all factors considered, but totally lacks for atmosphere. The space is a deadzone for the sort of vibe Covenant aims to manifest with these shows, and the venue geography lacks a proper place for the fest vendors. I know that booking the Rickshaw makes the most sense from a business lens. I don’t think I’d even be thinking in terms of atmosphere outside the context of a festival. Still, there’s a side to Covenant that’s not being explored to its full potential.
PART VII: SOME CLOSING REMARKS
(OR, PERSONAL MUSINGS ON A WILD WEEKEND WITH A GOAT-WITCH VOMIITING)
There’s a special satisfaction in having watched Covenant Fest grow and mutate over four years; like most great things, it’s more than the sum of its parts. Music aside, the fest has been a great place to congregate with friends and forge new alliances. Covenant brings with it a very specific sort of “fest mode” mindset that spurs adventure. I can’t comment on the nature of aftershow extracurriculars this time around, but there was plenty going on during the day. A lot of the best memories that weekend involved catching up with friends from out of town. On a side note, on Saturday afternoon before the third night, I hit up the Mountainview Cemetery (only a ten minute walk from home) and toured the crypts Blasphemy had posed photos with years before.
There was a slew of strong shows rounding the weeks after. As with last year, CovIV was rounded off with an acoustic denouement, headlined by Galician folk act Sangre de Muerdago. I wasn’t able to make it, but Sangre’s new LP is tied with albums by The Caretaker and Mournful Congregation for my current favourite of 2018. So I need not speculate on how bad I missed out.
The aftershocks of Covenant IV arguably climaxed with the “Clandestine Congregation” on July 13th, with Mitochondrion, Encoffinate, Akyros Expanse and Kanashibari– all of whom would have been formidable additions to the festival itself. Evenings like this offered some consolation for the inevitable post-fest depression. As the coming months return us back to the cold and dark, so we return to the state of gnawing anticipation. As for the future… there are predictably high standards for the inevitable Covenant V, but I know better than to have clear expectations on how they’ll achieve it. Some of the my favourite sets from the past four years have been bands I’d never heard of before, and I dare not speculate how they’ll push the envelope after a set of headliners like those they boasted with IV.
Onward and forward, then… No end in sight.
One last thing: a major “thank you” goes to all those involved in some capacity with bringing the Covenant Festival to being in Vancouver; again, and again, and again. I’d also like to extend my personal thanks to the festival’s organizers, who invited me to document the event as a third-party perspective. If it’s indeed true that a monkey unbound by time could compose the complete works of Shakespeare, I’m certain the same rule applies to underground black/death metal fest coverage.
All photos provided by Ndamato Photo (except where indicated)