This was always going to be memorable. Not only does tonight’s show mark the tenth anniversary of the Swedish depressive black metal collective known as Lifelover, it’s only their second performance since the death of core member ‘B’ in 2011, and it follows an announcement that there will be no more recordings under the Lifelover name. It is also the first and apparently the last time they’ll play the UK. So there’s been a sense of expectancy brewing since the gig was announced, which – at the show itself – developed into simmering menace, even threatening to boil over as all-out chaos.
As if this wasn’t enough Lifelover is one of those bands that, by all accounts, live the nihilism, misanthropy and self-destruction their music evokes, and past shows have regularly featured members slicked in blood from self-inflicted wounds. Whatsmore, the venue’s pretty rammed, the crowd’s boisterous throughout, and there are bouncers visible at the side of the stage; there are suspiciously non-Vape-like items being smoked both on and off the stage, and the lit candles prove to be precarious. I’m sure I’m not the only person wondering what the hell will happen by the end of this one.
The line-up tonight is built around the work of core Lifelover member Kim Carlsson who fronts three of the four bands on the bill – Kall, Hypothermia and of course the ironically titled headliners themselves – with London funeral death/doom stalwarts Eye of Solitude the odd ones out. Taking the stage first with Kall (Swedish for ‘cold’), it’s clear from the start that Carlsson will garner much attention tonight: as Kall’s vocalist – relatively relaxed compared with his guise as blood-soaked-Joker who grins wildly throughout Lifelover’s set – he still commands attention. Looking deceptively boyish and far removed from orthodox black metal aesthetics in red t-shirt and jeans, Carlsson’s deeply-pained cries and anguished rasps blacken Kall’s raw post-rock sound. While they deliver icy riffs suitable for the amassed metalheads in a churning power chord dirge, Kall aren’t afraid to groove, enabled by warm and memorable bass lines. At these points Carlsson dances a strange sideways shuffle – part crab, part Russian dance – which, coming from anyone else, could be described as silly, cute even, but somehow it’s all menace as he fixes the audience with an intense stare and mischievous grin.
Kall’s otherwise standard two-guitar with rhythm-section line-up is complimented by a saxophonist, peppering their occasional jazzy breakdowns with fucked-up squawking pips and occasional suggestions of melodic lead in a low register. Saxophones aren’t exactly new in extreme metal – Ihsahn make effective use of them on After, as did Ghold in a recent London show – yet it’s sure to divide people, as I get the impression it did tonight. To me it’s perfect, juxtaposing the bitter desperation of Carlsson’s vocals with a suggestion of warmth and life. If this sounds like Kall’s music is sweetness and light, however, even for a second, Carlsson’s always impressive vocals ensure that desolation and despair are never far away – and it’s his quality as vocalist that will make this gig particularly memorable for me. But more of that later.
Eye of Solitude’s sound is gloriously heavy, slow and wide, packing serious punch live. The band’s extensive use of overdubbed atmospheric keys and ambient sounds is both strength and weakness. When it works, mixing guttural growls with the sluggish trudge of doom sounds deeper, fuller and more expansive underpinned by sustained keys – but sometimes it detracts (although this might be an issue with the venue’s sound as much as the band’s). Mainman Daniel has a growl that instantly turns heads and his clean vocals are excellent, sounding especially sincere and sorrowful during regular piano interludes, perfectly nailing those ‘quiet before the storm’ moments. It’s a shame that the crowd’s a little thin on the ground during their set – a situation not helped by a long technical-hitch mid-set – and this draws attention to that one pillock in the crowd (yup, there’s always one) with too many pints inside him who’s annoying a few people with his drunken behaviour. Still, it’s not a big deal for those lost in Eye of Solitude’s earnest, all-absorbing woe.
The crowd fills out again pretty quickly for Hypothermia, clearly responding to the band’s mostly instrumental guitar textures which fall somewhere between post-rock soundscape and raw black metal. Donning hessian sacks and ratcheting up the dry ice for atmosphere, Carlsson’s one of two guitarists for this band, accompanied by a drummer. With no bass player and a scooped, treble-heavy guitar tone, Hypothermia sound as cold and painful as the condition which inspired their name. The crowd’s eager to show their appreciation although, as one track segues into another, we’re unsure when to clap – so I don’t bother, closing my eyes in absorption. I’m dimly aware there’s something going on in the centre of the crowd at one stage, though from half way back I can’t make it out. Carlsson fluffs a chord at one stage, scrubbing at the strings to get back on track, remaining deadpan if fidgety while the other guitarist cracks a grin.
Suddenly Carlsson stops playing, he’s shouting and gesticulating violently at the crowd, ripping his robe off, discarding the guitar, and the lights are on. “Get these people out of here!”, he’s screaming, pointing toward the pit area; “there are people misbehaving, get them out!” Now he’s a far cry from the cheeky, dancing frontman of Kall – his pale face is flushed from angry screaming, and I swear he’s one step away from jumping down into the pit himself. My mind gets a bit carried away considering what they might have done to incur his wraith, and those around me are equally perplexed. Amidst the confusion – frontman loosing his shit; bouncers eventually dragging the offending individuals out – the rest of Hypothermia coolly wait for the situation to breeze over as if it’s just part of the show. (I found out afterwards, from another review at Ave Noctum, that it was something to do with the pillock from earlier and a candle. More mundane than I’d previously imagined, but still a slightly unnerving situation.)
With Carlsson again robed up, the crowd shuts up and settles down for the rest of Hypothermia’s set – now even more intense, still seeped in tension from the preceding clash. While I’m nitpicking about the sparseness and odd timing of the vocals during the performance – wouldn’t this be better instrumental? – I’m struck again by Carlsson’s talent and sincerity as a vocalist. At one stage – start of a new song? No idea – he begins a slow scream from deep within, quiet at first, and building to a scratchy death rattle that’s truly upsetting to hear. In short, how black metal vocals should be.
Then there’s Lifelover. If the wonderfully unhinged and slightly ramshackle sounding debut album Pulver was somehow created amidst three days of orgiastic self-destruction, then their live show – wild, rough and hanging together by a thread – is the perfect compliment. The show’s running late anyway, and no-one’s rushing to get started. After several minutes of unsettling ambient drones, Carlsson emerges dressed in white overalls, smothered all-over in blood – don’t ask – looking psyched up for mischief. “Does he have a ball gag in his mouth?” the guy behind me asks his mate, as Carlsson prowls the stage. I’m sure it’s just make-up – the ‘why so serious?’ slash-cheeked grin – but, with this crew, anything could happen.
Finally, I feel someone muscling through the crowd and there’s no doubt it’s the rest of Lifelover, black-clad, faces covered by mask or bandanna, and ready for action. Slamming into classic tracks from their debut, the crowd roils and seethes with small pits breaking out all around, and fans everywhere loosing their shit. Despite the time it took getting started, there’s minimal soundcheck, with clipping sounds such as the initially overbearing drums being tweaked on the fly. In truth I’m not sure if the venue’s sound can really handle a five-piece large band, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the separate layers. This scarcely mattered however, with the inconsistencies almost serving to replicate the gloriously uneven nature of Pulver. When the tight snare cracks through the sound like a gunshot the sound borders on industrial; when it evens out it’s solid black metal. It’s rare to hear hand claps on a black metal track, and somehow only Lifelover could pull this off live without looking silly. Then there’s those random as fuck between-song samples – Swedish kids’ TV shows, classical piano interludes, an accordion ditty – sounding as strange and disturbing as ever.
The promoters were happy to let this one go on for as long as necessary, which meant that many, including myself, had to bail early for the last tube, left only to imagine what carnage will ensue. Lifelover’s deepest cut is both the first and the last.