Fusion Arena, Bucharest, Romania – November 29–30, 2013
‘Twas thirteen Novembers ago the last time I’d attended an event by the cognomination of November to Dismember, and I remember it well. Back then, the name represented two of the many festival failures orchestrated by the notoriously distrusted hands of Jack Koshick – taking place in San Antonio in ‘99 and the following year just outside of L.A. and offering a spattering of European first-timers who ultimately ended up not getting paid.
Although entirely unrelated, the name has now been resurrected by an upstart underground fest in Bucharest which to some – us included – may have presented a similar air of dubiousness to contend with. The organizers’ relative greenness in arranging a fest, the line-up boasting bigshots like Hail of Bullets and Impaled Nazarene along with a host of unfamiliar names from around the globe, and the iffy location (if you trust hearsay about Romania) weren’t exactly signposts for reliability.
It took a bit longer than usual to get this wrap-up written… I actually had the whole report drafted before ever even stepping foot off the plane at Henri Coandǎ International Airport, exposing how clusterfucked this first-time happening was, and how unoriginal and uninspired the line-up was. It then expressed my apologies for not having any photos to show for it, thanks to the theft of my camera when we got mugged by a slipshod gang of local thugs after being extorted for cash in one of the city’s many dark taxis, and driven to an innercity circle of dilapidation awaiting our capitulation.
But then, none of that actually happened. [Hah, yeah, ace journalism, Lady Enslain; proliferating age-old stereotypes instead of doing your job…] Instead, the trip had been among the best we’d attended all year, forcing me to crumple up the unsubstantiated writings that I never actually wrote, and begin anew – and attempt to do justice to this exemplary festival achievement and fantastic weekend.
~ Story: Lady Enslain. Live reviews: Ossi.
The Enslain team is always on the hunt for a metal adventure, and it doesn’t take much cajoling to initiate our flightpath to unknown territories. This tendency has occasionally taken us to locales that deviate from the standard headbanger’s highway, as was the case here; the initial aim was simply to rendezvous with the undersigned’s brother, who was to be touring Europe the same autumn with Solace of Requiem. Seeing as how they again neglected the North, we had our choice from a handful of gigs and nations to see them in. And with our hectic gig calendar limiting us to only a palmful, we selected November to Dismember because of the couple solid names on the bill assuring us of semi-legitimacy, and because we knew that Romania was otherwise not on our hotlist of future destinations.
As the introduction suggests, I can’t help but admit that the stories imparted upon us about Romania had us feeling a tad uneasy; our minds were left imagining this legendary place of gypsies and beggars, pickpockets and swindlers, squalor and urban decrepitude. But, coming from the home of Santa and safety, who can blame us for taking the advice of those who’ve been there?
And we also had our doubts about the festival itself. We know that first-time festivals don’t always yield the best results, often being organized either by starry-eyed fans who take too much upon themselves and fail to pay the bands’ guarantees, or industry worms trying to loosen as many wallets as possible, and then skedaddle before the fallout. The line-up left us wondering, too, what intentionality went into band selection. How could a no-name fest attract virtually never-heard names from as far corners as Japan, Brazil and New Jersey, and still hope to succeed?
So, we resolutely set out to assess this thing for ourselves.
Bucharest is not an easy or cheap destination from Hell-stinky. With the absence of direct flights, transfers through Copenhagen or Istanbul lengthen the trip duration to 6-10 hours, or more. Our 300€ Turkish Airlines flights had us flying past Bucharest into the gateway between East and West, in the land where I half-expected to finally find out what well-traveled people mean when they say that the kebab served in Finland is not real.
Boarding the plane, we were welcomed by the somehow disconcerting sound of Arabian music as we shuffled into the cabin, and promptly after take-off, we were each presented with an elegantly wrapped chewy snack. This, along with a printed menu of free food selections and the attendants’ willingness to comply to our demands for wine&beer, put us at ease. Food was, almost inevitably, kebab; but this was not the meat on a stick of America, or the thinly sliced visible animal carcass of Scandinavia. This was chewy beef chunk stew, which was better than it sounds, but left us wishing it was Finn-style.
After our brief layover, we landed in Bucharest – a city in the same time zone but almost 2000km to the south of where we started – to the vision of dirtied snow and temperatures that were peculiarly chillier. Deciding there was hardly time to figure out buses and roads, we promptly hopped into a cab that we called from a pre-downloaded app that fed our GPS location to a legit taxi service… No fucking around with deceptive drivers for us! We were dropped off at our hotel where we were greeted by the fest’s main organizer Coro and directed to the meet-and-greet party at Private Hell Club – a metal bar just a short walk from our lodgings – where several of the early arrival artists were making an appearance.
Having had to endure ten hours of travel to get there, you can bet we’d been drinking throughout the trip to soften the landing, and so it didn’t take many ridiculously cheap drinks or shots to cloud our memory and knock us on our asses, but not before getting buddy-buddy with the locals, and getting a feel for the general metal atmosphere, which I’d characterize as refreshingly friendly and welcoming. And overall proficiency in English was an unexpected plus! This convivial spirit must have been what turned us into raging apes, convinced me to start tossing my phone around like a playing card, and eventually somehow resulted in the fracture of my wrist.
On our late night walk back towards the hotel, we were advised to avoid the shady clientele assembled around the nearby pawn shop/bookie/underworld hideout… Aside from this trek, we hardly had time during our short trip to divert from the hotel, the venue or the club, with our only exception being our reunion lunch with my brother at the nearby Domino’s Pizza [don’t fault our stomachs for being unfailingly American!] Because of this, only our taxi rides between these few spots gave us insight into the citylife, offering a view that was little different than your average European capitol, save for the inordinate number of stray canines littering the streets, and the many rundown buildings.
While not as conveniently close as Private Hell was, Fusion Arena was a reasonable taxi journey’s length from the hotel – though rush hour traffic elongated the trip to over half an hour. We were first told that there would be regular transport arranged by the organizers taking bands and guests back and forth, but when we heard the guys from Riul Doamnei saying they’d been waiting in the lobby nearly an hour for this ride, we learned not to rely on this.
The venue was located in a dead-seeming neighborhood, by following a back alley past a vacant car repair shop whose sheet metal walls were lined with stacks of worn tires. On the inside, several stories up was the entrance to the hall – a unique fusion of a high-ceilinged long hall on one side, and a mostly unutilized skatepark on the other, providing a quiet spot to place the merch. The acoustics didn’t look nearly ideal, but the sound technician was obviously top-notch, as everything sounded uncommonly brilliant.
November to Dismember managed to surprise us in many ways. For an inaugural fest, things were curiously timely, especially considering the mere 10-minute switchover between most sets. A single backline surely helped here, as did the off-side area at stage right where equipment could easily be offloaded. There was very little downtime, making it difficult to find chances to mingle if you were keen on watching each act, but the afterparties made up for this nicely.
There was something pleasantly exotic about the band selections, which didn’t adhere to any specific genre, or seem to have any other particular criteria involved in the choosing [except, as Ossi recognized, the predominance of harsh vocal delivery]. Rather than being force-fed the same list of bands that reliably entice crowds, we were offered up a platter of mixed goodies from around the globe, bringing their own local flavors along with them. We thought this might result in a plethora of totally missable sets, but we found ourselves sticking around during almost all of them.
If the festival wasn’t shaping up to be ass-kicking enough already, the fans took shit to the next goddamned motherfucking level. Yeah, these guys slamming around, breaching boundaries, and having that enthralled expression in their eyes – showing such unadulterated admiration and gratitude for the bands who made the trek to their humble little festival – these guys made the festival for me. And I couldn’t help but chuckle every time a crowdsurfer would be carried from one side of the hall to the other, with their handlers moving along with them like a surfboard through the waves of people… I’ve simply never seen anything like it before!
All of our run-ins with the locals, as well as other maniacs that had traveled from close-by lands, revealed them to be interested and interesting, approachable and helpful, and really enthusiastic. Yet, not that drunk! There must have been an age limit at the door, since the bar was serving their 1€ beers to all who approached, however this didn’t seem to encourage drinking as much as it would have in Scandinavia. After all, we only spotted one poor soul passed out at the tables during the whole weekend [and it wasn’t one of us!]
As we entered the stage room, the Swedes of Terminal Prospect were finishing off their set. Living up to their appellation, the band’s melodeath was professionally executed, yet inconsequentially boring. Third on the schedule, Polacks Feto in Fetus didn’t only come with a more playful-sounding and memorable moniker, but also with much more musical appeal. Their moderately technical death metal with deliciously grinding tendencies brought a slightly less melodic Aborted to my mind, and the live delivery was loaded with an approvable amount of in-your-face energy as well. The quartet didn’t just numb your senses with mindless brutality, or attempt to drop your jaw with instrumental virtuosity, but reached an enjoyable balance between these elements, leading to a truly punishing outcome.
I had carefully positive expectations for the only American guests of the festival, Solace of Requiem, but wasn’t expecting to get quite this immersed by their set. The band’s live sound was so overwhelmingly powerful that one could just bask in it, smirking in twisted glee. The highly technical nature of the material was impressive, but a bit too much to handle for an unmusical simpleton like me at times, to the point where it started to feel alienating. This didn’t noticeably interfere with the overall experience, but the more straight-forwardly bulldozing parts were simply more my cup of tea. Add to this the ferociously passionate stage performance of these white-bread-munching motherfuckers, and we got ourselves one crushing death metal show. It was also nice to notice that the band didn’t let any of that 40 minutes go to waste, filling their slot to the brim.
Having named themselves after a Romanian river, Italian Riul Doamnei were definitely in the right place. At first I wasn’t sure if their show was the right place for me, though, as when briefly listened beforehand, the band’s symphonic black metal had sounded like something I would’ve been more likely to get into 10+ years ago. However, as they proved to be an energetic and entertaining live act already during the first couple of songs, I found myself staying for the rest of the set as well. While their style wasn’t very original, at times strongly reminding me of the big shots of the genre, it was carried out with skill and catchiness that kept it enjoyable throughout. I found a funny reminiscence with their countrymen Darkend in frontman Federico’s choice of hair, and the bands surely had certain musical similarities as well, but after having seen both live, Riul Doamnei definitely pulled the longer straw.
Serbian quartet Infest were the most old-school-sounding group to step onto the stage so far, although their tight and attacking sound did bring them to modern times instead of just reveling in past glories. The band’s blasphemous deathrash breathed a charming sense of bulldozing barbarity, particularly present in vocalist/guitarist Vandal’s straightforward raging. Their appearance of blood and spikes was a good match for the sonic slaughter, completing the picture – ugly, and hard to turn away from.
Being probably the most well-known Romanian metal band internationally – or at least the only one I had heard of before November to Dismember – Negură Bunget had been given the second to last slot of the night. I was aware that they had visited Finland a few times during recent years, but had never bothered to attend one of their shows, thinking that it would be too folky and atmospheric for me to properly grasp. Atmospheric it definitely was, but also surprisingly guitar-driven, creating emotionally crushing sensations that I wasn’t expecting. Some funky-looking traditional instruments were also seen on stage, but they were more of a spice than a dominating ingredient. Being familiar with the material beforehand would’ve surely boosted the experience considerably, but at least this was a welcome wake-up call to the fact that I’d better lend an ear to this national metal treasure of Romania.
We had seen Aura Noir in their home country less than two months earlier, but I gladly accepted yet another look at these bastards, as they’ve proven to be an ever-reliable live act that delivers energizingly varying sets of bloodthirst and ravenous hunger. One of this time’s most memorable manglings was the mid-tempo cruelty of “Shadows of Death,” and I was beyond thrilled when my Aura Noir favorite, the merciless “Black Metal Jaw,” was finally rained upon us in the encore after persistent yells for the song throughout the gig. Too bad that “The Grin from the Gallows” that someone suggested a few times wasn’t heard, as I truly hope that the epic feel of this track will one day grace the band’s live set. Anyway, it was once again a bloody fine witching hour from this Norwegian foursome, and as there was a great, wild feeling in the audience as well, it was easy to head over to Private Hell afterwards with a fierce grin on our faces.
Due to some delayed dining and semi-slow late afternoon traffic, we didn’t make it in time for the first couple of acts, of which the second one, Festering Remains, I was particularly bummed to miss. I had been looking forward to seeing this young bunch of Swedes bash out their brutalizing tunes, but as my fellow Finns in Scarecrow – listed third on Saturday’s bill – were already getting close to finishing off their set as we arrived at Fusion Arena, it was no cigar this time. We had seen the Hyvinkää horror freaks once before in much more inebriated circumstances, and I would’ve preferred a full re-match this time, but we had to settle for just a few cuts of their catchy metallic punk. Despite being surely the punkiest-sounding name of the line-up, Scarecrow seemed stylistically rather refreshing than out of place. And having never met the guys before, it sure was fun ambushing them with some drunken Finnish babble after the show.
Survive were visiting all the way from Japan, but were also further from our tastes than any other act during the weekend. After getting over how exceptionally LOUD the music was bursting from the speakers during their set, we observed it to be decent at what it was; aggressive, thrashy modern metal. However, as the clean vocals suddenly kicked in, revealing the ridiculously annoying metalcore-tendencies of the band, it was a total turnoff. The band performed with a professional level of enthusiasm and energy, though, so I guess for those who didn’t mind the music, Survive delivered a solid show.
Luckily, the next freaky foursome filled our ears with slime of an entirely different origin. Hailing from the land of Velkopopovický Kozel and Obscene Extreme, Spasm bombarded the crowd with simplistically groovy goregrinding brutality. Based already on a few promo (cum)shots that I had come across on the internets beforehand, I knew to expect a suitable amount of sleaziness from these Czechs, but was still taken by surprise as vocalist Radim stomped onto the stage in his banana hammock. Add his impressive pig squeals and guttural growls to the gorespattered canvas, and Spasm had themselves a memorable frontman, to say the least. In small doses like this, their kind of sonic sickness is such a delight to enjoy live, and I clearly wasn’t the only highly approving spectator, as especially one shirtless wildling kept the security guy busy, repetitively breaching the tape barrier between the audience and the stage in his moshing mania.
Daemonicus had gotten shining recommendations from a Swedish friend of ours based on the band’s previous Helsinki appearance at one of the Tuska afterparties, and was therefore another number not to be missed. My judgment didn’t end up being as favorable, though, as the band’s musical expression seemed a bit too commonplace to get excited over at this point. Their death metal was following loyally the same paths their countrymen have been treading for over two decades, spiced with a tasty dose of melody, but didn’t quite possess as much punch as their paragons. As Swedes tend to be, the band was fun to watch, and clearly in their element on stage, despite lacking the gory appearance of their promo photos and performing au naturel instead. Not flavorful enough to rave about, but a worthy snack in the midst of more essential courses.
Having roamed the underground for over two decades, Avulsed took Saturday’s game up a notch. These Spaniards don’t only have a respectable track record of brutal old-school death metal, but also come alive on stage with admirable fury, with primus motor Dave Rotten displaying in-your-face intensity and genuine crowd appreciation on a level rarely witnessed. I also don’t remember having seen anyone else multitasking with fierce headbanging and growling like him, and it’s not like crowdsurfing seemed to interfere with his vocal performance either… yep, that wireless mic sure came in handy there! Upon his request, the tape barrier in front of the stage was soon removed, and closer interaction and further stagediving ensued. While I wasn’t familiar with most of the material, the fresh Ritual Zombi songs left the deepest memory imprints, with the most memorable highlights being the album opener “Dead Flesh Awakened” and “Horrified by Repulsion” with its hilariously clever lyrical concept and steamrolling mid-tempo heaviness.
We had been bumping into the guys of KroW all weekend, and now it was finally time to see them in action, as they had been placed on the later side of the schedule, among long-running powerhouses and recognized international names. I indeed had never heard of the band before the fest, and while their choice of moniker hadn’t given the most promising first impression, the music itself was fortunately a different deal. KroW continued Saturday’s stream of deathly metal, but also threw in a fair dose of thrashy elements to balance the crushing heaviness, stylistically living up to modern standards without losing concentration on the basics. While the quartet had their origins in Brazil, they had recently relocated to Europe for better touring possibilities, and their live experience was evident in the stage rage that the whole group displayed.
Finland’s very own nuclear metal messengers of 20+ years, Impaled Nazarene, have been one of my extreme metal favorites for more than half of that time, never letting me down with each new album, and even less when they get on the stage and bash some heads in. While I’ve had the pleasure to witness that over half a dozen times back home, and Impaled Nazarene are a live band that you never really get enough of, it brings a special twist of its own to see them abroad. It’s not just about getting a few parts of the lyrics that those around me don’t, or the fact that “har har, Luttinen is speaking English,” but the general atmosphere at their gigs outside of Finland is just a bit different – perhaps partly due to the audience being more fiercely fanatic than inebriatedly idiotic? Anyway, the reception at November to Dismember was expectedly favorable, and the band was also visibly pleased to finally have made it to Romania after years of ventures around the globe. The intensity level never loosened, as this war-painted four-man death squad tightly raced through hits from golden (shower) oldies like “Condemned to Hell” and “Let’s Fucking Die” to cruelties of the new millennium à la “The Maggot Crusher” and “Enlightenment Process.”
Although I haven’t been going as apeshit over Hail of Bullets’ recordings as many others seem to, all of the band’s three full-length outputs so far have been highly enjoyable works of exemplary death metal. However, when expecting to be overwhelmed by their mercilessly powerful and tight sound live, I have previously been left with slight disappointment. As both encounters had happened on outdoor festival stages, I hoped that the club-like environment of Fusion Arena would act as a more suitable battlefield. This indeed turned out to be the case, as the venue’s sound – that had been positively surprising us for the whole weekend with its consistent strength and clarity – perfectly supported the band’s war hymns. As the whole picture came together with the crushing and catchy song material, which the seasoned death metal commanders interpreted with firmness and fury, the outcome was a spine-chilling feast of old-school butchery that left very little more to hope for.
Finishing off Saturday night and therefore the festival was German funeral doom bunch Ahab. With my taste being highly selective when it comes to the genre, I had found more appeal in their nautical themes than their atmospherically dragging tunes. As we add to this the considerably more up-tempo acts that had gotten the blood rushing through our veins all evening, and the band’s past-midnight starting time, I didn’t find the needed concentration in me at this point anymore, and slipped away from Ahab’s grasp soon after. Perhaps I might’ve found the music more absorbing in a different setting, but now it just felt too unfamiliar and uneventful to keep my interest afloat.
As the festival began drawing to a slow close, we tried enjoying the few remaining hours with the newest additions to our metal brotherhood, rather than focusing on early flights and the exam I’d have to study for the next day. This resulted in several hours of drinking strange shots and dodgy liquors at Fusion Arena, followed by a failed attempt at taxiing to Private Hell, as a certain reporter of ours was so booze-blooded that he insisted to the driver that two lei [the equivalent of about 45 Euro cents] was plenty enough to pay for the ride, and then drifted back to a state of unconscious stupor. So, we retreated to the hotel, which was probably a good call, considering my predilection towards missing flights after extended drinking binges.
Awaking the next morning, we packed our things and proceeded to the lobby, where signs of life were less vivid than on the previously anticipatory afternoons. We hustled to the airport, checked in, and set down our things at the food court, at which point we discovered that the land was celebrating their National Day, earning us a complimentary chocolate boat along with our Burger King purchase. No sooner had we unwrapped our Whopper than we heard Ossi’s name being summoned to security… apparently, they had located my bullet belt in his checked-in bag, and they must never have come across one of these before. They grilled him with questions [Where did you buy this? When did you buy this? Did you go to war?] leaving him to assure them that it was only a harmless clothing accessory. The Devil only knows how they’d react if they ever saw someone like Nifelheim’s duffel bag of spiked gauntlets, bandoliers and other assorted military gear. In the end, they agreed to keep one bullet for “further inspection” and returned the remainder to our bag – to what end, I have no frikkin’ clue.
And now we’re back home, wondering how we can top this festival experience next year, and regretting the fact that we may never find ourselves in Bucharest again, despite how the festival had far exceeded our expectations, how many great friends we made in such a short time, how inexpensive it was to get wasted there, and how their clueless airport security guys still have my ammunition-free bullet in their possession.
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