Panopticon / All photos by David Burke
When I was trying to convince my boss to let me go cover Migration Fest, I summed up the lineup as “pretty much the best of the American metal underground right now.” Though that may have been a slight exaggeration, it was only slight, because this inaugural live collaboration between Gilead Media and 20 Buck Spin managed to put together the kind of bill of which most metalheads can only dream. It was jaw-droppingly impressive enough to lure attendees from all over the country (and as far away as England and Denmark) to the small, strange city of Olympia, Washington, and keep us there for four full days. It was deemed special enough to foster a host of exclusive performances, including Panopticon’s live debut. Hell, someone posted a Migration Fest 2016 tattoo on Instagram before the first band had even played. People were stoked, is what I’m trying to say here, and it was immensely gratifying to get out there, pick up that maroon wristband, and find out that all the anticipation and excitement and travel time had been wholly, undeniably worth it.
I won’t go into play-by-play accounts of every band that played, because firstly, that’s boring, and secondly, I won’t pretend that I watched every second of every band; a festival like Migration is firmly rooted in community, which means that many people there spent almost as much time talking about music with old and new friends as they did watching it unfold onstage. A constant sea of black T-shirts and long hair ebbed and flowed outside the Capitol Theater, the Burial Grounds coffee shop, and Rainy Day Records, whose parking lot hosted the merch stalls (and whose Country section yielded some unexpected treasures when I wandered inside). Once the day’s programming had ceased, rivulets of denim and leather flowed to Obsidian—where the after shows and craft brews reigned—and Cryptatropa, a gothier property that kept the absinthe flowing until 2AM, after which clandestine hotel parties quietly raged until the staff had had enough.
As much jaw-flapping, beer-quaffing, and bear-hugging that went on, the performances were well-attended even at their earliest—I was worried that hangovers would hobble Dead to a Dying World’s 2PM Saturday time slot, until I looked behind me during the first song and saw that the theater had filled with eager faces. The after shows—featuring Anicon and Bell Witch one night, Acephalix and Yautja the next—were so packed with excited music hounds that only a fraction of the festgoers could even get into the venue, leaving hundreds of others free to explore various pockets of Olympia’s nightlife (and to dodge the scores of meth-addled wraiths stalking the streets).
The main venue, the Capitol Theater, was big enough to hold everyone (its rows of seats were a serious boon to tired legs and aching necks), but it definitely got a little sweaty in there, especially during the big ticket acts. For example, it was no surprise to see the theater swell to bursting during Panopticon’s set—which was itself a deeply emotional affair capped off by a heartfelt, tearful display of gratitude from Austin Lunn—or during rare performances from Krallice, Obsequiae, and Christian Mistress (to say nothing of Mournful Congregation’s closing epics). The preshow alone was better than most gigs North American metal fans are able to see in any given year, thanks to promising local funeral doom sect Eōs, a desprately intense showing from Cavernlight (featuring Migration co-founder and Gilead Media head Adam Bartlett on drums), and a goddamn transcendent set of Emperor covers from False (did seeing a band made up of diverse, big-hearted people tear into the first black metal song I ever connected with, "I Am the Black Wizards," make me tear up the tiniest bit by the end?... Don't worry about it).
That was only the beginning. Mutilation Rites unleashed a nasty new song. Fórn thundered, Pale Chalice seethed, Full of Hell howled, Nightfell hammered, and Hell crushed. From Mizmor’s stunning live debut and the brutal live collab between The Body and Krieg to Magic Circle’s heavy metal magic, Khemmis’ harmonic might, VHOL’s short-and-tight volleys of powerful space thrash, and the way Vastum and Auroch sent vicious aftershocks of death through the fest’s predominant black metal and doom presence, Migration was a feast for the senses, a patch-vested Pacific Northwestern Roadburn cut down to scale and ignited by passion.
Three performances in particular stood out to me—and yeah, I am more than a little biased, as I’ve known the people behind all three of them for years. There’s that community thing again, that strong connective tissue binding us all together. Even in spite of my own bias, I could see the reaction that greeted Yellow Eyes’ Saturday afternoon show; people seemed blown away, and it felt like that triumphant, voracious set (anchored by one of the most terrifyingly adept drummers in the game, Michael Rekevics) signaled a sea change in their rising career. Before, people back home in NYC knew that seeing Yellow Eyes live was something special; now, others from far and wide knew, too, and took that information home with them to spread like apple seeds.
For me, seeing Thou is like going to church; it makes me feel strong, and small, and part of something greater. You can’t look away when vocalist Bryan Funck stalks the stage like a caged beast, his rangy form rocking to and fro and his voice cracking through the heavy air. His bandmates throw their bodies into every chord, every note, hewing a kinetic tableau of misery and triumph with every breath and every movement that glints off Joshua Nee’s cymbals and snarls between Mitch and Andy and Matthew’s strings. It’s intoxicating, and their set at Migration felt like a fever dream. They threw out a mammoth new song, lurched through older ones, and closed with a raw, shuddering cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that seeped into my skin and hit me straight in the heart. They’ll definitely make fun of me for getting all soppy like this, but Thou is such a very, very special band that I can’t help it; they mean a lot to me, and judging by the roiling mass of bodies that pressed against the stage to greet them, I’m not alone in the sentiment.
Mournful Congregation did a bang up job of closing out Migration with gloom and grace, but for me, the end of Migration truly hit after False played, as I was scraping myself off the floor. They’re another special band (every band that played was special, of course, but I’m being selfish and talking about my favorites right now). When they play, six people crowd the stage and move in disjointed unison, summoning beautifully vicious black metal that skips between Emperor and Ash Borer to land squarely on False. Vocalist Rachel’s stage presence has grown even more commanding, and occasionally unsettling; she challenges the listener to engage, as her voice booms, shrieks, and claws at the rafters. When guest vocalist Sarah came out to lend her voice to the sprawling “Deluge,” at the end, she and Rachel locked arms and held one another as they sang, and I’ll be goddamned if it wasn’t one of the most affecting things I’ve seen in ages. It was the defining moment of Migration. Connective tissue. Community. Catharsis. Respect. Love.
There’s a reason that Migration’s spiritual predecessor, Gilead Fest, was fondly referred to as Black Metal Summer Camp, and that the name carried over this year is proof that lightning can strike twice. It may be corny to keep harping on about the atmosphere at Migration, but it was such a huge part of the festival that it bears repeating: the prevailing mood was warm, welcoming, happy, and (post-performances) awed. It was a joyful moment, centered on the bleakest, harshest, most desperately emotional music.
Niche music festivals have a way of insulating their attendees behind a protective bubble, gamely shielding them from an outside world that generally sees them as alien (or at least, a bit odd). There’s something inherently comforting about participating in the rituals of a metal fest, from the aesthetic uniformity and climbing decibels to the simple, fleeting pleasure of assuming that everyone in your immediate vicinity shares at least one of your biggest interests. Whilst you’re wedged happily in that bubble, it’s extremely easy to forget about anything that may be transpiring outside its borders.
Migration was no exception—or at least, wouldn’t have been, had it not been for the Louisiana floods that threatened Thou’s friends and family at home, or the shooting scare at New York City’s JFK airport that made me fear flying home, or the anarchist graffiti that bloomed bloodred downtown following a Sunday night march in solidarity with the Milwaukee Uprising. The real world has a way of muscling its way into even the best fantasies, but in this case, those harsh cracks of sunlight peeking into our dark, happy little cave were welcome reminders of how good we had it—suspended in time, cradled inside a microcosm of our own design.
There would be plenty of time to address those things once we left—once I landed at a tense JFK, and when half of Thou headed back to Louisiana to haul and help and heal, and as Olympia itself waits with baited breath to see what comes next. However, for that brief, crystalline moment—those four days of love and music and blastbeats and absinthe—everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.
Kim Kelly is really hoping we get a Migration 2017; she's biding her time on Twitter.