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Wolvserpent Render Portland Speechless with Powerful Live Show

Wolvserpent 1-1
All Photography by Cat Jones 

My original plan was to review Godflesh’s Portland, Oregon show at the Hawthorne Theater a couple of weeks ago. But as you’re probably well aware by now Godflesh couldn’t get visas to get into the country and their whole tour got postponed (yeah, everything else that was going on was bad enough, but when the government took Justin Broadrick from me, I was PISSED.) Then I ran into the always-lovely Grim Kim when she rolled through town with Orange Goblin and she wondered if I might want to cover the Wolvserpent show instead. To be completely honest, I still hadn’t given the new Wolvserpent record Perigea Antahkarana a listen and black metal hasn’t really been my cup of tea in years, but I had planned on reviewing a show this week anyway, so I figured I might as well expose myself to something new.

One of the best things about going to a show at Rotture is that the venue is a blank canvas without being plain. It’s dimly lit and has brick walls and a bar; nothing about it makes it seem like any one “scene” dominates the culture there. While their calendar is heavily booked with all sorts of metal and heavy rock, it feels like you could easily stumble upon a jazz quartet with a soul singer and no one would bat an eye. In Portland this type of venue is important because there is a dedicated subculture for seemingly everything (you’ve seen Portlandia. You know.). On this particular night the tone was set with even less light inside than usual and the house music consisted of throat singing and grim folk tunes. There were myriad candles lit and sage was burning, setting off some Pavlovian response in my mind and calling up flashbacks of Gothic cathedrals and Gregorian chants. I caught a glimpse of a woman sitting in the corner, face shrouded by a head covering, spinning her own wool on a spindle made out of a CD-R and a stick. Indeed, this was not a show: this was a ceremony.

The opener for the night, At The Head Of The Woods — the one-man Portland experimental/drone project from James Woodhead — started without much fanfare or even an announcement. He traversed his way through the crowd at the bar, lit a few more candles, and performed his epically long, soothing, and mesmerizingly atmospheric songs, sitting on a chair on the floor in front of the stage, down on our level. I am fairly certain that half of the crowd didn’t even know the show had started, as it could have just as easily been a continuation of the house music. Slowly but surely each and every head turned his way, people quieted their bar conversations, and feet shuffled to stand closer, engrossed in the looping of his guitar and synths.

Next up were Druden, the four-piece black-metal project, also from Portland. I abandoned all hope of trying to get a good photo in complete darkness, so I stood back and observed. While the band was tremendously impressive all-around, I was most taken aback by the talent of the drummer, who not only beat the skins fantastically but also sang half of the vocals in all of the songs. That’s hard in any genre, but in black metal it takes on a whole other force.

Once it was time for Wolvserpent the room became electrically silent. The band set up in complete darkness save for the blue light emanating from behind the drums to illuminate the backdrop. Percussionist Brittany McConnell began the set by playing the breathtaking violin intro from “Perigea Antahkarana” perfectly juxtaposed with the subtle, crackling sounds of a campfire and distant chirping of birds. Once the tone was set, she sat down to build the marching drumbeats along with Blake’s ambient guitar. That alone would have been enough to transport me into a dream of hiking through a dark forest in the dead of night, but the clincher was the fog machine that intermittently covered the two musicians in a chilling mist.

This is a band that has absolutely impeccable control over their dynamics. When Wolvserpent want to make a point they do so by building a song to the point where you’re vibrating from the onslaught of volume and whispery, snarled lyrics, then they bring you down to the distant ringing of the overtones of a bell. The whole production was downright stupefying and effectively threw the audience into the palms of their hands. By the time they closed the set with the epic, 17-minute-long track “Concealed Among the Roots and Soil” (the same song that closes the album) I was speechless.

The very next day, ironically, Wolvserpent announced that they were unable to cross the Canadian border and had to cancel a few shows. I hope I didn’t pass Godflesh’s curse onto you, Wolvserpent! If so, I’m truly sorry, Canada; It’s all my fault and I hope you get another chance to see them soon.

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