Living in New York City can spoil a person. The constant movement, the endless choices, and the destructive seduction of it all are part and parcel of living here—perks and pitfalls of having the audacity to make a home for oneself in this megacity by the sea. Whether your tastes run towards the artistic, the luxe, or the strange, there’s always something to do, somewhere to go and someone to see, and leaving that effervescent bubble of possibility can cause a sort of systemic shock. It’s something that always catches up to me whenever I leave town, whether it’s to go home to the woods where I grew up, or to venture someplace farther-flung. That thought surfaced once again this past weekend, when I found myself wandering down a cracked sidewalk in a tiny Portuguese town, ears still ringing from the night before, trying to find a cemetery.
It was my second day in town, day two of the heavy metal festival that was my reason for being there in the first place. SWR Barroselas Metalfest takes place in sleepy Barroselas, a small hamlet in the northeast of Portugal; 2016 marked its nineteenth year running, and the lineup was too good to resist taking on an extra weekend to my post-Roadburn European travels. The festival was housed beneath a series of large canvas tents, constructed to keep out the rain that locals swore usually accompanies this time of year. The weather stayed sunny and crisp all weekend, though; we were spared the gobs of mud we’d been promised, but the relative lack of muck didn’t detract from the festival’s DIY spirit. Despite its long-standing stature as Portugal’s biggest metal event, SWR maintains an extremely low-key, almost familial vibe.
Everyone seemed to know one another. Handmade decorations livened up the setting, and festival organizer Ricardo Veiga spent the weekend strolling around doling out hugs and chatting with bands and attendees alike. An entire pig crackled on a spit outside in front of the merch stands all weekend, providing fatty succor for those who found it impossible to subsist on beer alone. The catering tent saw bands and crew crowd around long wooden tables to slurp down duck rice and fish stew side by side, and you could see new friendships form in real time, as strangers bonded together over favorite bands or even just shared language. The English speakers tended to gravitate towards one another, as we were an obvious minority, though everyone I encountered knew at least to say “obrigado!” in thanks. The overall atmosphere was incredibly friendly and welcoming, down to the hand-drawn signs that were whisked out of pockets and purses to welcome death metal gods Incantation back to the fest after an 11-year gap.
The sunny weather was the main reason I decided to go searching for the aforementioned cemetery—that, and a somewhat perverse desire to go and look at something pretty amidst all the heavy metal chaos. I found it eventually (and it was quite beautiful), only to discover upon my return that I wasn’t the only stray metalhead who’d found myself among its tranquil headstones and blooming, well-kept graves; apparently, years before, a group of SWR attendees had drunkenly stumbled in and smashed up the joint. In a heavily Catholic country like Portugal, where shrines to the Virgin Mary gaze beatifically out from every corner, this kind of grave desecration is obviously not appreciated—and explained the avalanche of hairy eyeballs I got from locals as I walked quietly through the cemetery itself.
It was weirdly comforting to find out that it hadn’t been my leather jacket or tattoos that had aroused their suspicion, but terrible to think of those lovingly maintained graves—with their immaculate stone and tiny photos of round-faced grandmas and stern uncles— being besmirched and broken in the name of metal. Religion itself may be bullshit, but respecting the dead should be a given, especially in a subculture as death-obsessed as ours.
Up the road, beneath the canvas, there was quite a lot of death worship on display, from Grave’s classic Swedish rumblings to Misþyrming’s apocalyptic Icelandic black magic and Spasm’s dildo-festooned Czech goregrind antics. The lineup was diverse in a delightfully strange way—I never thought I’d be able to see Jucifer (playing a sped-up, ultra abrasive set that they told me is reserved for European audiences because there’s no way to haul their usual wall of amplifiers overseas), Archgoat’s raw Finnish filth, and something called Gorgasmico Pornoblastoma on the same stage on the same weekend, but I did, and lots more besides.
The monolithic riffs (and rolling clouds of smoke) that doom titans like Usnea, Conan, Inverloch (who added liberal doses of ugly, decimating death metal) and Monolord called forth from the void were aptly balanced by fast, cold, ugly blasts of black metal from Naðra, Misþyrming, Taake, Balmog, Infra, and Marduk, while Possession and the mighty Incantation held it down for pure death metal destruction amd Doom kept the punks bouncing. SWR's overall effect was of Maryland Deathfest and Obscene Extreme (with a smattering of Eistnaflug's cheerful vibes) smashed together and left to bake in the sun, wreathed in cigarette smoke and the savory aroma of slowly-cooking pork.
The festival was laid out in a way that made it easy for attendees to catch every band they wanted to see, and (crucially) offered plenty of places to sit down and have a beer when their/our weak flesh gave out. I didn’t see a single bum set, but there were definitely highlights—I’ve still got the raucous refrain to Doom’s “Police Bastard” thrumming away at the back of my eardrums, and will always lament my faulty language skills for leaving me out of the loop during Violator’s set. The wild-haired frontman stopped between each ripping thrash track (wading through the roiling mass of stage-diving fans in the process) to speak passionately about indigenous rights and Brazil’s bloody colonial past, which seemed to hit the Portuguese crowd especially hard; imperial hangovers will do that.
We had two brilliant photographers on the ground capturing the madness—Helena Granjo and Pedro Roque. Look for a full gallery (courtesy of VICE Portugal) very soon, but for now, check out a few killer shots of my favorite moments of year’s edition of SWR Barroselas Metalfest.
conan [Pedro Roque]
balmog [Helena Granjo]
violator [Pedro Roque]
doom [Helena Granjo]
jucifer [Pedro Roque]
inverloch [Helena Granjo]
incantation [Pedro Roque]
Misþyrming [Helena Granjo]
infra [Pedro Roque]
usnea [Helena granjo]
archgoat [Pedro Roque]
Naðra [Helena granjo]
spasm [helena granjo]
Kim Kelly left her heart in Barroselas; now, she's on Twitter.