A Death at the Opera: California DeathFest III Is Oct. 13-14

Pissgrave! Nunslaughter! Agoraphobic Nosebleed! All your favorite death-metal acts hit the Oakland Metro Opera House next week.

Morta Skuld (Tracy Jolene)

California DeathFest III takes place at the Oakland Metro Opera House the weekend after next, and boy, does it have some work to do to top California DeathFest II. Last year’s event featured such heavyweights as Brujeria, Nuclear Assault, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Exhumed, and a whole heap of bands that use a weird font in their logo, resulting in a completely indecipherable name.

And fear not — this year’s fest has plenty of space for those “what the fuck does that say” acts. Because over-the-top graphic design is part of the genre’s culture, part of a larger desire to push boundaries and good taste as far as they can be pushed. So, this year, bands with names like Pissgrave, Nunslaughter, and Drawn and Quartered will sit on the bill alongside the big guns of S.O.B. and Samael.

The latter, from Sion, Switzerland, has been around for an astonishing 30 years, developing from a fairly standard European black-metal group to something a little more genre-defying.

“There have been a few cornerstones to the evolution,” says frontman Vorph (who just has the one name, like Cher or Madonna). “The main one will be the Ceremony of Opposites album. This is the album when I just focussed on the lyrics, and that is how we’re still working today. Also, we had keyboards on every song. With the next album, Passage, we switched from the drums to the drum machine — having more industrial elements, and even some electronic elements in the music. So I think it’s probably between those two albums that we found our identity.”

Vorph says that there’s a healthy metal scene across Switzerland, where every major city has a “cult” club to play. That, in part, has helped Samael survive for those three decades, culminating in the most recent album, Hegemony.

“We had a few albums that were a little bit patchy and going in different directions,” Vorph says. “Since Solar Soul, which was our album released in 2007, we’ve started to come back, to focus more on what we thought were the strongest point of our band — the things that define us. I think with the new album we succeed in making a join between the past, the present, and the different things that were important to us.”

At DeathFest III, for which tickets are $47-$90, Samael will perform the Ceremony of Opposites album in its entirety, as it did at a recent DeathFest in Maryland.

“This time, we’re headlining one of the nights, so we’ll have more time,” Vorph says. “So the album will be played entirely, but then we’ll at least perform a few new songs. The new one will be just released the day before. I think we get an hour, so maybe five more songs than the album. Something like that.”

The fact that the festival is held at an opera house is fascinating — partly because of the contradiction, on the surface at least, between the worlds of opera and extreme metal. But both are brash and bombastic. (More than a few death and black metal bands appreciate Wagner, for example.) On a more pragmatic level, the acoustics are perfect for an event such a this.

“We’ve played these sort of places a few times in America,” Vorph says. “Not opera houses maybe, but theaters. They seem to have their time of glory beyond them and now more alternative bands play there. It is strange — the whole atmosphere is almost baroque, but not with the full history behind it. Kitsch baroque — the American way. I’m looking forward to it.”

Having never performed in California at all before, Morta Skuld mainman David Gregor has obviously never played at the Oakland Metro Opera House either, but he’s clearly psyched.

“I’m looking forward to learning about the history,” he says. “It’s not always necessarily the performance — sometimes it’s about seeing other areas and learning about the culture in those areas.”

Samael (Krzysztof Ras)

Like Samael, Milwaukee old-school death metal group Morta Skuld has a rich history behind it. Unlike Samael, Morta Skuld lacked the luck required to help it reach the next level. They’re still plugging away, though.

“The band started in 1990,” says Gregor. “We did our first two demos, and then we signed to Peaceville Records for three full-lengths. The band had broken up in 1998, but in my hometown people wanted to see us — so I continued calling whatever the lineup was Morta Skuld, even if we didn’t play Morta Skuld tunes. That was a mistake. Morta Skuld came back together in 2011. We put out Through the Eyes of Death on Relapse in 2012. I had been out of death metal for eight or nine years, but I was talked into going back out to play. That’s when I started searching for a lineup and got to where I’m at now.”

Mortan Skuld just played at the DeathFest in Kentucky, and Gregor is beyond excited to bring his long-time project to California for the first time. The men have been going over the setlist over and over again, trying to come up with the perfect gig.

“We’re going through all the songs we know and trying to hone that live show so when we do come to Cali we just kill it and leave hopefully leave people wanting more,” he says. “Sell some shirts and CDs to buy a couple of meals while we’re in town, then sit around and watch some other bands.”

In fact, that recent show in Kentucky is as far as Morta Skuld has ever been up to this point. Circumstances have conspired against Gregor, as previous band members refused to tour and shows were cancelled. A show with Slayer back in the ’90s should have been the launching  point for greater things, but it ended up being anticlimactic.

After all this time, Morta Skuld deserve their time in the California sun and spotlight, and they’ll surely grab this chance with two grasping hands.

California DeathFest III, Oct. 13-14 at the Oakland Metro Opera House, 522 Second Street, Oakland. $47-$90; 510-763-1146; oaklandmetro.org.

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