I spent the last weekend of July wandering around a tiny German village, perplexing pasty Europeans at a holiday hostel, and most importantly, watching a litany of Prophecy Productions-affiliated bands play their dark little hearts out inside an imposing Stone Age cave. The 2016 edition of Prophecy Festival followed in the German label’s decades-long tradition of supporting what they term “eerie emotional music,” a nebulous tag that meant we got to see proggy French shoegaze, legendary British neofolk, and celestial Norwegian black metal comfortably share a rough-hewn stage over the course of two very intense days.
I seldom take notes at live shows, preferring to “live in the moment” or whatever, but here, I did. It was too easy to get overwhelmed by the visuals, enveloped in the sound, lost in the music—to have an hope of remembering the details of what transpired, even vague ones, meant breaking out my Notepad app and tip-tapping away. Festival coverage is a funny thing, too, because unless a band does something truly spectacular (or awful, or outrageous), any live report you try to write invariably ends up being a long list of “this band ruled, so did this one, and this one as well” capsules. I’m afraid that’s exactly what this one is going to be like, too, because throughout the course of this supremely well-curated weekend, I don’t recall hearing a single bum note or bad set (though the perfectionists onstage may have had other ideas). As excited as I was to see bands like Germ, Les Discrets, and Helrunar, it was old favorites like Alcest and young blood like Canadian folk doom heathens Völur who truly captured my heart that weekend (as well as Vemod, obviously, because they’re one of the best black metal bands in the world right now).
From a fan perspective, Prophecy Fest is up there with small-scale, passion-driven fests like Iceland’s Eistnaflug, Norway’s Beyond the Gates, the USA’s Migration Fest (more on that soon) and, in spirit if not in size, the most hallowed of them all, Roadburn. Big, wild, manic fests like Hellfest or Wacken or even Maryland Deathfest all have their own considerable charms, but at least from my perspective as someone who’s attended countless shows and festivals in 20-odd countries, these more intimate gatherings hit far harder and end up being a much better time, at least if you’re more interested in experiencing the music itself than getting wasted and partying with thousands of people. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of libations flowing at Prophecy Fest (shout out to that three euro rotwein my buddies and I supplemented our booze tokens with) but the overall vibe was calm, chill, pleasant, and appreciative—we were able to see so many once-in-a-lifetime performances that weekend that you got the impression that no one wanted to be kicked out for being That Guy sloshing around starting fights.
The lineup was structured in a very democratic way; the festival organizers wanted each artist to feel equally appreciated and be able to play the best set possible, so there were no set limits, and each performance was exclusive—whether it was a first European appearance like in Völur’s and Germ’s cases, Alcest playing their watershed album Écailles De Lune in full, or Les Discrets debuting their new album. This format worked quite well overall, though it did lead to a few overlong sets (Antimatter played for what felt like a hundred years, though I did enjoy their sad, folky harmonies and the frontman’s conviction) as well as a surprisingly short, effective appearance by Icelandic newcomers Glerakur, whose first continental European show was a captivating blur of five guitarists, two drummers, and a flannel-clad bassist who blended 90s alternative, drone, post-rock, and the odd noisy Nirvana-esque squall.
Crowd at Balve Cave
As for those capsule reviews… the weekend kicked off with Hekate, whose medieval goth neofolk came swathed in clouds of sage and punched up by xylophone, tambourine, magisterial drum beats, and an extreme commitment to their aesthetic. Soaring emotive Australian atmospheric black metallers Germ sounded fantastic, and I genuinely cannot suss out why they’re not already huge in the States; I’d call their arena black metal “depressive,” but it sounds too joyous, and even the aggressive breaks are ultimately beautiful. Les Discrets kept the goth train rolling with the debut of their new material, which veers heavily towards post-punk with big harmonies, snappy percussion and chill, dreamy harmonized vocals.
Iron Mountain’s Celtic proggy post-rock was unexpectedly engaging; they kicked up a good aul groove, and those bagpipes were wicked. Secrets of the Moon came out swinging with a full-album performance of SUN, ramping up the rock’n’roll swing into an epic, lush crescendo. Helrunar closed out the evening with a burst of Viking-inspired energy, fronted by an endlessly charismatic vocalist who served up their fast and burly (and occasionally doomy) black metal with aplomb.
Völur opened Day II, and absolutely crushed it. If you wanted to stage an opera in your basement space, this is who you'd call. The Canadian drum, bass, and electric violin trio are all involved in other musical ventures—Blood Ceremony, Do Make Say Think, solo jazz efforts—and the genre agnosticism showed both in their Prophecy debut, Disir, and onstage. They came out in black robes, under clouds of smoke, bathed in blue light. Cinematic and self-possessed, they offered up Wagnerian bombast stripped down and filtered through wild pagan folk and thunderous doom. If you've never seen a crowd full of leather and spikes headbanging to a violin lead, you've never seen Völur.
Bohren Und Der Club Of Gore is a band that I’ve never really explored but seen people reliably lose their shit over, and their Prophecy gig was no exception. They had all the lights turned out, then, illuminated by pinpricks of light, the band (and their robot drums) methodically picked through sustained, echoing dark ambient compositions. It sounded like the innermost mechanical core of an alien warship, ominous and huge, and was intense enough that I needed to go take a walk afterards to shake it off. The village of Balve is weird and picturesque; over the course of a half hour, I explored a grocery store, found the bank, encountered a curious preponderance of mammoth statues, bought chocolate milk and sweet chilli crisps in Aldi, then sat down in the sunshine and munched as a car drove by blasting Dolly Parton’s "Jolene". The latter was an excellent reminder that I'm never really that far from home—a nice thought for the kind of rambler who ends up at a festival like this.
Don Anderson / Sol Invictus
I came back in time to catch the tail end of Antimatter and see Glerakur, but the main event that night was unquestionably Alcest, Vemod, and Sol Invictus. Seeing Alcest up there, enveloped in lavender light, running through the songs on Écailles De Lune, as profoundly emotional; that record meant a lot to me when it first came out six years ago, and as it turns out, it still does. The rapt faces that surrounded me in the audience echoed that sentiment, as did the band’s expressions onstage; as Neige told me later in an interview, it was a tough performance to prepare for, but they made it look effortless.
As I mentioned before, I'm firmly convinced that Norway's Vemod is one of the most compelling black metal bands going, and their Prophecy performace made that crystal clear. Their command of aesthetics is second to none, and the music itself is just transcendent; the atmosphere, the intricacy, the intensity, the artistry, it's all there and then some. "Otherwordly" doesn't even begin to describe Vemod; you just need to listen (and, ideally, see) them for yourself.
Neofolk icons Sol Invictus tied it all together with help from a special one-off lineup featuring Matt Howden, Jo Quail, and Agalloch’s Don Anderson on guest guitar. Vocalist Tony Wakeford is still in fine fettle, and the stage was filled with what seemed like a dozen musicians who were all obvious masters of their respective instruments (and who seemed to be having a hell of a good time, too). Their rendition of “Hill of Crosses” gave me chills, and Anderson was remarkably animated throughout, mouthing along and generally providing an excellent example of what it looks like to be asked to play with your favorite band. They closed with “Kneel to the Cross,” a song Agalloch once covered, closing the circle and turning the page on Prophecy Fest 2016 in the loveliest way imaginable.
It's always tough to have to leave a place like that, and my own journey out of Germany took a few turns for the surreal (I ended up in Cologne during a massive protest, and got to see dozens of police in riot gear basically occupy the main train station, which wasn't terrifying or anything). It was worth every twist and turn in the road, though, and I can't wait to go back. There are rumors swirling of a Prophecy Fest USA, too, so stay tuned...
Kim Kelly is already at another festival; follow her exploits on Twitter.