The number of festivals held in Romania is slowly increasing every year, but as far as I notice on the web or through news from my friends, they follow the same pattern: rent a huge space, bring 'big' bands that sell your tickets, cage the participants within some fences and tell them to have fun there, there's hardly any interaction between fans and artists, the crowd is offered the classical piss draught beer, everything is on the run and so on. I was 'warned' by my friends that DonisArt events build up to a different kind of experience, but my imagination was way far from what I was about to experience during the three August days spent in Alba Iulia, with the occasion of Dark Bombastic Evening festival and its fourth ritual.
We arrived there Thursday afternoon after an interesting start of the day, involving some pigeon shit and few hours spent with the car in a service. But driving through Romania through Valea Oltului can be rewarding as it offers some pretty landscapes and cool, narrow and/or steep driving sections. The hotel we stayed at, Transilvania, besides missing a letter in the name and some basic comfort related details, offered us a friendly stuff and comfortable beds for a good rest. It was also located pretty close to the Ryma area, the place where DBE took place. This Ryma area is a part of the Alba Iulia fortress, a place that played some important roles throughout Romania's history. As I am not writing the review with the purpose to give a history lesson, for those of you interested, you can maybe start reading a bit here - Alba Iulia Municipality - and then use the search engines' power in order to find out more. Overall, it is a fantastic location for such a festival as it contributes to the authenticity and the coziness of the atmosphere.
I have no idea how many participants the festival had. I noticed an impressive number of people who came from abroad. But my amazement was quite obvious when I realised how 'big' the stage and the festival designated area were. Yet, it worked perfectly I'd say. There was place for tents all the way in the back, a place for the 'kitchen' where we would be served some really tasty authentic foods (I so had enough of festival fast foods prior to this event), a climbing wall, an outdoor bar, a bunch of tables, a stage, a merch stand and even few parked cars. Inside the fortress walls at the Ryma spaces there was place for another bar, an artists area and an art gallery that I personally forgot to visit. Yet everything was reachable within thirty seconds of walking. It was that small and I hope you can imagine how special the two evenings become under such circumstances. Wherever you walk you most likely run into a familiar face. And if not, after few hours of moving around, every face becomes familiar. Old acquaintances blend with new ones, there's a certain friendliness floating all over the place and most of all, a lack of stress that I rarely felt in Romania. Even the guards somewhat managed to 'hide' their presence, meaning that I never felt them threatening in any way like it might happen at concerts. I actually didn't notice any of them in front of the stage, another thing that I never experienced before. Besides the multitude of bipeds in the area, we had the company of some local(?) stray dogs who occasionally added their barks as effects to whatever was performed on stage. Plus, next to these performances that I will try to summarise below, we could admire all sorts of acrobatic performances (jugglers, slackline, one wheeled bikes), kids fighting with wooden swords or brave folks trying to reach the top of the climbing wall. The best thing was that you didn't need to relocate at all in order to admire the show. When it would be dark enough, some small balloons carrying candles would be sent out in the air, hopefully offering some entertainment to the Alba Iulia citizens who filed complaints about the noise in the fortress. I was really sad to hear that one of the only two events hosted by the fortress and that must generate a lot of income for some of the locals, is treated with so much hate. Oh well, let's focus on the nice memories of the weekend, mainly the music on stage. And the friendliness of the staff who always had a good joke to tell and a smile on their faces. Which is a big plus for a festival in this country.
The 'noise' would start each day at four PM, each band getting around forty five minutes on stage then fifteen minutes for the instruments change and set up and all. The fourth DBE ritual was opened by the Scottish band Falloch and their Folk, Atmospheric and Post Rock mix, but due some previous running back and forth to/from the fortress, I missed a part of their show so I only got to notice little of the atmosphere they might try to build, but I must say that the music was, occasionally, way too badass for the softer and clean vocals. But then again, I heard too little of it to fully remember what happened on stage. After a short while, the stage was taken over by one of the many Swedish bands in the festival's schedule: Isole. They brought along over twenty years of experience and music and a very dark/doom metal that felt like perfectly belonging to the fortress walls. Slow tempos and very long songs, whose depressiveness was quite ruined by daylight, yet it allowed you to focus more on the skills of each musician (one of them being a member in Loch Vostok, a band that will visit many European places pretty soon on their tour). All in all, I found it to be a pretty direct and fanciness free doom that's worth checking out.
I only recently discovered the Finns from Oranssi Pazuzu and their psychedelic black metal (one of the band members called it cosmic metal, but since that description is taken, we left it to psychedelic cosmic metal). But they are rather catchy, for me at least. They have such odd songs and riffs (one guitar player occasionally uses a lightbulb over the chords) that simply get stuck to your brain. I dare you to fully listen to the song 'Komeetta' and take it out of your head afterwards. The band's name seems to translate into the expression 'exorcist cosmos', which suits pretty well the evilness transmitted through their music, a music that at times felt able to even darken the sunlight. I believe the band regretted a lot their stage uniforms involving very thick black coats/hoods, considering everyone in the crowd was boiling and wearing only tshirts. But they did offer an intense performance and probably made some new fans right away. Another small break and time for Alcest, a French band that is 'on the wave' right now, playing countless of concerts and festivals and gaining more and more attention in the press. They had played DBE the previous year and, despite their busy schedule, they decided to make the effort to play Alba Iulia once more. They were very loved by the crowd as far as I noticed, and I was glad to finally experience live the interesting mix of black metal and some soft, cozy harmonies, that I lately found described as dreamy post-romantic blackgaze.
Next, we would be taken towards a more atmospheric and post black metal music, spiced up with jazzy influences, with the help of the Germans from Lantlôs. As far as I understood, it was their first live show. It started feeling like the music would get darker and darker, impression enforced by the two bands that followed. The music was not easy to digest at all, as it certainly has a genuine way of combining elements that end up sounding so 'noir' and heavy and like nothing you (or maybe I) heard before. It has a certain melancholy and monotony, yet, strangely it doesn't feel repetitive. I guess they need some congratulations for managing to obtain this. All this was followed by even more slower rhythms coming from the Finns in Unholy, a project that was formed back in the nineties, but kept on splitting, hence, there's not that many chances of seeing them live. Even fewer, if none, in the future. And I feel bad for not bothering to understand more of the bizzare mixes and sounds on stage, but my stomach was demanding its rights so I had to spend time filling it up with food and taking a little rest for the day.
I returned to watch more Finnish dark music, from Dark Buddha Rising. As it started to get dark, the atmosphere was well built in combination with the bloody show offered by the singer who poured 'blood' all over his body using some slow, adequate motions. Their silhouettes were perfectly matched with the DBE fiery logo projected behind the drums. Their music totally requires a certain mood or state of mind to comprehend. I saw people who were simply adoring it and a lot of the audience was simply wondering 'wtf?'. Don't think I heard anything in between about the band's sound, that most likely feels like a neverending repeating riff for an untrained ear. Because, at the times when I did try to figure something out, I realised that the repeating riff actually comes with something new after a little while. And then something else new. So I totally put a new name on my list of 'bands to be explored', and maybe one day I might either comprehend or simply just hate this. We'll see.
The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation was one of the day's highlights in my program, as I liked the sound of their 'sister' project, Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble. But TMFDC is based on live improvisation putting together elements of noise, jazz, experimental and ambiental music. I must admit that the live experience was not as cool as expected. It's the kind of concert I'd much rather enjoy in an opera hall or so, and I'd prefer more 'action' instead on the stage. The whole band is kinda static and they prefer to play 'in the dark' and have you focusing on a projection on the background. They had small problems with one of the laptops, hence the show was a tad delayed, but they probably couldn't cut it shorter as the movie would no longer make sense. By the time they ended, the energy felt kinda low all around, and luckily the night was revived by the Icelanders from Sólstafir and their boundaries breaking blend of metal, rock and a dark rock'n'roll like sound. Equiped with their stage 'suits' reminding you of some wild west characters, performing mainly from their latest release, Ljós i Stormi, having to cut their set off by one song, the band offered the most energic gig I witnessed. I say this because I never saw the guitarist called 'Gringo' moving from his spot, nor the singer doing so much changes in the way he interprets the songs. Another important change was during the song 'Fjara' where the choir was replaced by a sweet pan flute played by Gadinet from Negura Bunget. I guess the late night atmosphere combined with the energy on stage was a perfect winner for the end of the DBE's first evening and made me count quite plenty of Sólstafir tshirts in the audience, the day after.
The night ended with an afterparty 'around the corner', still in the Ryma spaces but not in the area where the stage was located, where a bunch of people would headbang and jump and dance on the metal rhythms played by the evening's DJ, using his vinyls (as far as I read prior to the event). I was surprised that they used more 'commercial' tunes, as last year the music was chosen more in the underground direction, but as long as people had fun, it must be all that maters. This was, again, a chance to sit down with old and new friends and enjoy a drink and some jokes. This led to a slow morning the next day but it was well worth it. Due the insane heat outside, I only left the hotel to eat lunch with some friends in a pub close to the festival area, a pub whose owner has a rather weird conception about business and how he should handle a multitude of customers at the same time. Hence, I'd gladly stay away from Pub13 anytime I am in Alba Iulia.
My friends and I called the second day of DBE a 'folk day', considering the names on the lineup. And it started as such, with the Italians from Rose Rovine e Amanti and their neofolk rock with a red rose attached to the hat. We actually thought several times that they sing in Romanian, this is how much the two languages sound alike (unless he used a special Italian dialect in his lyrics). Musically, we were treated with a continuous change between electric and acoustic guitar for the main singer, keyboards, violin and a drummer who maintained the grooviness of their songs. I was happy that they seemed to set a good mood among the audience, setting the right state for the bands to come after them. The first one in the series was the Romanian - Italian mix going by the name Sunset in the 12th House, also invited for the second time at this festival, due an unfortunate cancellation of another band. But this was rather fortunate for me as the guys had the chance to perform live songs from their first album and what a thrill for the ear this was. With two percussionists on stage, one on regular drums, one on African like ones, hand held (I can't recall if they have a dedicated name), I was immediately sold to the grooviness of each tune. There were hardly any vocals used in the lyrics, leaving place for a sweet flow of guitars, bass and mandolin mix and an increased level of curiousity for the upcoming album. I recommend you don't miss it. Plus, I was more than happy to see the great response from the Romanian crowd, who didn't seem to have enough of the guy's performance.
A bunch of musicians filled the stage for the next concert and they are playing with the name Hexvessel and bring us a psychedelic forest folk rock as far as I was informed. But irregardless of the music categorisation, they bring us beautiful music. It was fantastic to stand in front of the stage and try to visually capture what each musician does and at the same time trying to figure out the overall sound entering your ears. It felt really pretty, like it did when I shortly listened to some tunes prior to the festival. I saw people dancing and clapping with enthusiasm between songs. It was the band's second performance at the festival and I'm pretty sure they had a great time both on stage and also among the Romanian audience. They kept smiling as long as I saw them on stage and, even if they couldn't release their newest album at Alba Iulia, I was told they played some of the new compositions that, like the entire setlist, sounded fantastic.
Fantastic (and more than that) is one of the words to describe the next performance on stage. I somehow missed the name Coulisses in the list and thought that the next performers are called Isobel & November. They started as a duo on stage, with one guy on keyboards and a bearded guitarist in front of the microphone. When he started to sing, I felt like hypnotised. It's been a while since I heard such an awesome voice that simply leaves me with my mouth open and unable to move away from the stage. The duo played few more songs, quite intimate and dark, folkish sounds. The keyboard player switched to drums eventually, keeping a soft and surprising back rhythm for the lovely voice and the guitar. After a while, the guitar and its carrier left the stage, making room for a cool drum solo, after which the other people in the band came up on stage, taking over the bass, the drums (the previous drummer went back to his keyboards and/or guitar). The singer also came back and all of a sudden the music switched to a bit more psyched (apparently country and goth) music. Extremely beautiful stuff, usually starting softly and cozy and ending up in a madness of sounds during which Per Erik (the singer) seemed to go berserk. He didn't even bother to replace the broken string on his guitar. So, actually what happened on stage was that Coulisses is another project of Per Erik's, but as they didn't have a lot of material for a full concert, they combined their set with Isobel & November. Actually, this was the first live appearance of Coulisses as far as I understand and I am more than happy to have been able to witness that. It was the biggest and most beautiful surprise of the festival for me. Not to mention I always had to move back and forth as the light kept on changing during their set, making it for more and more interesting photos as well. Another mention about this concert is that for one of the songs, everyone in the audience was called 'pussy' and so were the band members. That was because it was dedicated to the 'Pussy Riot' scandal, in order to show the solidarity with the imprisoned musicians.
I don't even recall when I was done with the eating process, but pretty soon it was time for the Russians in Theodor Bastard. I had listened to their ethno trip hop before and I found it rather beautiful and full of emotions. The live experience raised the beauty to even higher standards. The darkness had surrounded the stage so their pretty singer was interpreting and gracefully dancing under various colors dictated by the stage lights. Her voice was simply beautiful from one end to another and they even got to play an extra song, that's how much the crowd and Doru, the organiser, loved it. Once again I saw a bunch of people dancing in front of the stage or along the walls and benches. There were such good vibes in the air going from and to the stage that I somehow wished that concert would end the evening and would last for few more hours. Yet, it had to stop and the Russians had to leave the stage to make room for the Poles in Job Karma. A duo presenting their ambiental computer music (as all I noticed on stage were two laptops and a bunch of cables) with a heavy accent on visual images projected in the background. With all my respect for the artists' work and ideas, I was too tired at that hour to watch anything on a screen and I simply can't spend more than 3 minutes looking at people playing music behind the computers. Hence I took a small retreat in the 'party' area of Ryma (quiet at that time) and enjoyed the silence and an encounter with some familiar faces.
I returned later to the main stage to have a look at the Danes from Of the Want and the Moon and check out the sound of their neo folk tunes which felt quite shamanistic at times. It seemed like there's plenty of beautiful, almost magic, music coming out from the speakers but my level of tiredness didn't allow to focus for too long, so I just had to put them on my 'to listen to' list. I sort of regret not being able to enjoy their music live, but after so many lovely moments during that day, I guess I was allowed. I do hope to see them live again on a better day. The last show of this incredible festival was delivered by The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensamble. The albums that I listened from this Dutch project are full of mystery and a dark, intense ambience, which they try to replicate live and combine with a set of moving images that play on the background. There's a bunch of instruments either working together or allowing one of them to stand out and let you discover its beauty (the trumpet sounds were hypnotising). I was sad that they didn't have a drummer on stage (unless he was well hidden behind all the tall supports for PCs and such), but glad I got to experience them live. Probably a god choice for the final show as the music invited you to retreat in a corner of your mind and enjoy the silence around you. Yet, my brain was feeling as if it's about to shut down, so I spent a big part of the show trying to find someone to walk back to the hotel with. I was too tired to even think of the idea of catching a cab.
I think there's many other words that can be said about this festival. And about each of the bands. Probably someone with more and deeper knowledge of these underground genres might have succeeded in giving you a better picture of what the two days in Alba Iulia have offered us, music wise. For me, it was a lovely treat. I'm glad to have discovered new bands and re-experience the ones I already knew from before. But most of all I am glad for the two days of openness and friendly atmosphere. I believe the best ending for this review is to send big thanks to Doru and everyone in his team involved to make this event happening and running so smoothly. I heard rumors that maybe this might be the last DBE edition. It would be a real pity if this is the truth, yet, people who got to attend the events are probably left with some amazing memories and stories to tell over and over again.
But with or without this festival, after having experienced such an event, I believe that the words on DBE's page footer state the truth - 'Underground will never die!' Amen!
Andrea Chirulescu wanderte von Rumänien nach Norwegen aus um dort zu leben und zu arbeiten, berichtet leidenschaftlich über Festivals in ganz Europa und widmet sich ganz besonders dem Underground.