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Opening the gates

by Paul Blom / 21.08.2014

INTERNATIONAL METAL BANDS IN AFRICA

We love to compartmentalise ourselves in factions. It’s that tribal instinct. Besides the obvious religious and ideological divides, there are far less deadly ways by which we identify our tribes using social and cultural references; fashion, art, and of course music.

The assumptions surrounding heavy metal music will probably remain intact for as long as distortion pedals are manufactured. Where some cliques come and go, metal has remained a steadfast force (except for sub-genre off-shoots that fans will never see eye-to-eye on, at least not when it comes to agreeing what ‘true metal’ is, but that’s a topic for another day).

Fans populating the metal genre are more diverse than you’d think, and even if you believe it’s the most ridiculous form of musical expression, unfortunately for you, it cannot be wished away. While the South African metal scene is not as big (due to a truckload of factors), abroad it remains a potent form of expression (festivals like Wacken, Sonisphere and Download a mere glimpse of its reach).

Back to the local scene, and over the years international extreme music bands have filtered through (beginning somewhere around the 1993 groundbreaking tour out here by Brit metallers Napalm Death), but being a country of extremes and constant changes, metal bands from abroad are now hitting our shores at an exponential pace, thanks to the efforts of promoters like RAMTouring (who have recently brought us Lamb Of God, Trivium, Asking Alexandria, Bring Me The Horizon), Turning Tricks Entertainment (Dreamshade, Unearth), occasionally Hilltop Live/Oppikoppi (Deftones) and Big Concerts (Metallica, Rammstein), and a name well settled in the history of SA metal gigs: Witchdoctor Productions.

In the early to mid-2000s, upstart Durban-based local record company Witchdoctor Records brought out albums and a spate of bands fans never thought they’d get to see on African soil; also taking the bold step to produce a (sadly short-lived) print magazine dedicated to metal called Make Some Noise, with a (now defunct) linked on-line band portal which has morphed into the African Metal Archives. They invested in and brought out European powerhouse bands like Entombed and The Haunted, the Brazilian Cavalera-driven beasts Soulfly and Sepultura. They hosted a 3-day metal-only festival called Witchfest. It couldn’t sustain and the Witchdoctor ailed, eventually falling silent…

After a long silence, the team is back, primed to give South African fans of metal more than just a bitch-slap of superior foreign metal power, but to deliver a veritable pile-driver of bands from around the globe on a constant basis!

The first line of this heavy metal assault came early July 2014 in the shape of Canadian death metallers Kataklysm. The acclaimed band has been shredding the world for over two decades with around a dozen albums (and DVDs) under their belts. The loud quartet lit up The Assembly in Cape Town and Carfax in Johannesburg.

A few hours before their Cape Town show, I had a chat with the amiable duo of guitarist / producer / engineer Jean-François Dagenais and bassist Stephane Barbe.

While drummer Oli Beaudoin sound-checked, we settled in the backstage VIP area, where the obvious first question led to whether they ever thought they’d get to play their brand of extreme music in Africa.

Jean-François: No! It’s really a dream for us to be here – it’s the other side of the word for us. When you start a band, you don’t think about these things. We were just a bunch of rebels in high school, getting together and letting out some anger. You never think you’ll get anywhere playing music. We feel very lucky. Sometimes it feels like we didn’t choose music, but that it chose us.

Stephane Barbe: It’s still a great surprise for us to get to play in South Africa. It’s a beautiful place – we’ve been here a few days and got to look around; went to Table Mountain, went to the beach…”

And we saw from Witchdoctor’s on-line picture posts, you sampled many drinks…

J-F & SB: Always!

What is the oddest place you’ve been to before hitting South Africa?

J-F: Places like Indonesia and Japan – were so off the wall. Their cultures are so different to ours. It’s really neat to see the way people live their lives. In Indonesia people are so poor and have so little, but they live much happier – everyone has a smile on their face, and they’re all super polite and nice, and want to help you with everything. It’s beautiful to see, but a shock at the same time.On the street where I live [in Dallas, Texas] – people will never be like that. I like being outside of my element, and to feel almost borderline uncomfortable, not knowing what could happen – I love that feeling.

And comparing South Africa with Canada?

J-F: Here, it is actually very close to like where we’re from in Canada!

Being on the same continent, people often assume that Canada and the USA are very similar, but that’s obviously not the case. What are the most perceivable differences?

J-F: The beer?! No, I live in Dallas and I find the main difference is that the cost of living is much cheaper in the US; the weather’s quite different – in Canada it’s snowing for half the year and very cold; Canada’s also a huge country with only around 50 to 55 million people, so there’s a lot of untouched land (which is beautiful if you’re into nature), while the US has around 400 million people with a lot of cultures and everything’s fast paced – Canada’s a little more relaxed…

And a little more French…

J-F: Yes. We’re from the French part of Canada, which is very European – we almost feel like Montreal is a cross between Paris and New York. It’s a very unique place, the mixture of cultures is nice.

How and when did you get into extreme music?

J-F: I was a big fan of mainly the British scene, like old Napalm Death and Carcass – they got me into the extreme side of music. In high school, we wanted to be up there and just be the most extreme band ever. In the practice room we were always ‘Faster! Faster! Aaaargh!’ – and that’s how we started.

Metalheads are not all hectic, psychotic brutes – more often than not you’ll find the people making the most aggressive music are in fact quite laid back! 

J-F: Yes! Playing this music you get all the bad vibes out!

Which brings us to the various personalities within the band…

J-F: I’m the quiet (guitar playing) guy, Stephane (bass) is  the funny guy, vocalist Maurizio (Lacono) has the business side, and Oli (dums) is like a super athlete.

SB: Yeah, he’s always hyper!

J-F: Oli watches what he eats – I’m the opposite!

By this time it became very evident that we were not bunkered against Oli’s punching drums, rapid-fire kick-drum rolls pounding through from his sound-check.

Having played huge shows and mega-festivals as well as tiny, intimate venues, what are the main likes and dislikes of these polar opposites?

SB: It’s two different vibes, like here in a smaller venue you’re closer to the people. It’s great, you can feel the energy and there’s more of a connection. On a big stage you’re so far away.

J-F: I like festivals for the party elements. We bump into friends that we don’t get to see a lot. The atmosphere is great, the people are there to party, but as Stephane said, from a musician / artist point of view it feels like you’re so far away from the crowd and from each other on a big stage – you feel like you should be… closer! (Stephane envelopes his bandmate in a jestful hug).

How much time of the year do you spend touring?

J-F: We’re out for about six months of the year, but we try to do it smartly. We all have families, so we go off for a month or two, then we’re back home for a month, then out again for another month, and try to cover as much territory as we can. Sometimes we don’t get to do the places we want to, like returning to Russia. But then, we got to do South Africa, which is great!

Before coming to South Africa, had you heard of any local metal bands?

J-F: A while back we used to work with David Caracandas, a sound engineer from South Africa. He was with us for a while and he gave me a lot of South African stuff to listen to. To be honest I didn’t even know there was a scene here before I met David, but he played me some stuff and it was pretty cool.

(David is an old friend of mine and he toured Europe with my old band V.O.D [Voice Of Destruction] as our live sound engineer through 1996 – 1997.  After we recorded there and finished the tour, David stayed behind and started doing tour management and live sound for loads of bands, eventually working with the likes of Dark Funeral, Amon Amarth and Thrash legends Exodus and Nuclear Assault, and managing acts like Korpiklaani and Tyr.)

The explosive show after we wrapped our chat did not disappoint, from local acts Suiderbees & Bleeding Spawn, and Cape Town legends Sacraphyx reuniting, to the main event everyone was waiting for – THE SACRAPHYX PERFORMANCE! A treat many looked forward to even more so than the headliner. Ah, patriotism in its right place.

From the moment that Kataklysm hit the stage to their leaving the venue decimated, their powerful delivery of precision metal was a testimony to years of dedication to their craft, making them the powerhouse they are.

More 2014 tours you can expect up Witchdoctor’s gauntlet sees Sepultura returning in September; Late-November anticipated Polish blackened death band Behemoth hit our shores for a double-header with SA touring alumni  Konkhra (Denmark); The first half of 2015 sees Witchdoctor’s Witchfest Metal festival resurrected (early April) with Septic Flesh (Greece), Alestorm (Scotland), Belphegor (Austria) and Fleshgod Apocalypse (Italy), joined by a truck load of local bands (including a special V.O.D performance). This is shortly followed a month later by Swedish melodic death-masters At The Gates.

With all of the entertainment positives that come with this, a serious dent in the bank accounts of fans cannot be denied… and I also cannot help but wonder how this may affect bands on the local scene. Sure, those selected as support get exposure to a bigger audience than they’d normally play to, but could their diminished sound and lighting solidify the belief of those who simply assume imports are better than the local product, with the noticeable difference when they hit the stage respectively? Sacraphyx were great, but the increased sonic impact when Kataklysm performed was very evident.

People will bitch about paying R50 to watch a local band, and not pitch up for a line-up of four bands at even 30 bucks (“but I need money for drinks!”), yet would pay 10 to 20 times that amount (and more) to come out and watch  an international act, whoever they may be.

The promoters take a serious financial risk in even thinking about touring name international bands, which is something that should not be forgotten – even if the bands take a small or no fee, all the costs from international plane tickets to live sound, hotels, hot meals and all those beers for the backstage change-rooms, add up to a fortune each time.

This question could also lean in the direction of spurring local bands to up their game to an international level (and some have, even before the international influx), but if the supporters are flat broke having saved for, and spent it all on touring international bands, no matter how shit hot you are, this could be problematic in getting heads through the door and feet in front of the stage. As selling your music becomes harder, if the options for playing live also diminishes, it may look even bleaker.

Regardless of how this might affect the local scene, it is commendable that promoters take a leap on non-commercial genres, bringing bands to fans that would otherwise have had to take a costly trip abroad to see their favourite acts.

And for those who have it ingrained that promoters are money-grabbing opportunists, Witchdoctor’s affinity for animal welfare has extended to them donating R10 from each ticket sold to their events, to a worthy animal welfare cause (like Nordic Rescue SA and Blikkiesdorp Rescue, supporting the people that make a difference).

To stay up to date on all Witchdoctor tours and festivals, head to www.witchdoctorproductions.com or join them on facebook.

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*Images © Paul Blom

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