Words by Albert Ferkl.
Starting as a small DIY showcase for local grindcore bands in 1996, Brutal Assault has grown into one of the world’s foremost extreme metal events. Headlined by Emperor, Opeth and Carcass, the 2017 edition saw the festival site – the 18th-century Josefov Fortress in Jaroměř, Czechia – stretched to maximum capacity for the first time. The black-clad crowds came from around Europe, drawn to a four-day celebration of all things dark and intense: a multi-genre lineup, decadent art exhibitions, a grindhouse theatre, and relaxation in courtyards, catacomb and forests.
Brutal Assault now in fact spans five days, opened by a warm-up party featuring four Czech bands performing in a truck outside the main entrance on Tuesday 8 August. The following day, the full festival area is ready with five music stages: a double main stage, a large tent stage, a smaller courtyard stage titled “Oriental”, and the small “keep ambient lodge”. Opposite this lodge rests the grindhouse, while three art exhibitions and numerous other chill-out zones can be found throughout the fortress. The main stage opens with Stockholm metallic hardcore newcomers God Mother and the tent stage with Seattle post-hardcore act Mercy Ties. This introduces a strong presence of extreme punk music in the lineup, confirmed today with great performances by New Jersey’s the Number Twelve Looks Like You, reformed Long Island metalcore veterans Vision of Disorder, New York hardcore legend Madball, and finally French trio Birds in Row delivering a most heartfelt set late at night. The day is headlined by the Dillinger Escape Plan, who offer a final round of stellar chaos as part of their farewell tour, while main stage metal highlights include Fleshgod Apocalypse‘s Italian death opera, the beautiful dissonance of Canadian tech-death pioneers Gorguts, the epic Finnish metal of Wintersun, and the black liturgy of Polish occultists Batushka. In the lodge, their countrymen ARRM offer a release to light with a beautiful ambient set, whereas the Oriental stage peaks with Japanese masters Boris who deem the occasion suited to a slowly shifting drone-stoner set, foraying only once into punk tempo. The night is closed by Washington black metal act Wolves in the Throne Room, whose yearning-inciting wail mourns the end of perhaps the festival’s richest day.
Thursday again opens with hardcore, this time by local crossover act Exorcizphobia and young Leeds band Higher Power. A string of monotonous metalcore, thrash and death metal follows, culminating in a late afternoon Terror set. Afterwards, things quickly get deeper and darker on the side stages, with lovecraftian black metal band the Great Old Ones from Bordeaux and German industrial project Femeheim taking to the tent and the lodge respectively, but this is only mild preparation for the ensuing performance by mythical New York avant-rock group Swans. The high point of the day and the festival, this set is over two hours of mesmerizing intensity, gradually sinking the audience into ever stranger depths. For those who make it all the way through, the subsequent headline by Scandinavian metal giants Emperor and Opeth may seem a shallow affair despite its grand fashion, and only the late-night lodge noise of Dutch act Gnaw Their Tongues and local project Hluková sekce provide sufficient follow-up.
On Friday, an early grindcore set by Dutch band Teethgrinder is not particularly moving, nor is anything up into NOLA sludge pioneers Crowbar taking the stage. The first convincing performance comes from New Zealand band Ulcerate, who harness a strangely apocalyptic death metal sound. After Pennsylvanians Incantation showcase the roots of this style, there follow two sets of pure fun: the up-tempo metalcore of August Burns Red (also of Pennsylvania) and the genre-bending insanity of French musician Igorrr, who performs live as a DJ accompanied by a drummer and two singers, male and female, both transitioning seamlessly between operatic and bestial vocals. By then, Treha Sektori from Paris and Human Larvae from Berlin present their ambient takes on evil in the lodge, followed in heaviness by American experimental ensemble Wrekmeister Harmonies on the Oriental. Headlining shows by classic English bands Carcass and Electric Wizard ensue, the latter enticing large-scale cannabis consumption in the audience. Meanwhile, Oriental finishes with Moscow group Phurpa who demonstrate the ritual music of the Bon religious tradition in an extended set. The night concludes with sweet performances by Irish post-rock band God Is an Astronaut, who accompany an especially intense set with a handsome lightshow, and Germans Der Weg Einer Freiheit, who exhibit an unusually uplifting take on black metal. By then, even the last extreme lodge projects – the Belgian Yhdarl and the local Igra Sound System – are done.
After another weak set of early shows including a poor showing by English band SikTh, the first noteworthy performance of Saturday comes from Sheffield metalcore act While She Sleeps, who successfully oscillate between anthemic and fierce modes of expression. Not long afterwards, Flemish band Oathbreaker take the stage, presenting their blackened screamo sound quite beautifully. Thereafter, not much is left to marvel on, except for headline shows by Architects from Brighton, who move the audience for an hour of grand metalcore, and Canadian prog stalwart Devin Townsend, who performs with typical quirk. Norwegian black metal classic Mayhem also perform late tonight and Incantation close the Oriental stage with a special doom metal set, but time is just as well spent in the lodge where Czech duo Aghiatrias, German project Troum and Swedish act In Slaughter Natives carry on their dark ambient sounds throughout the night. Many also take a last chance to party at a late show by local band Gutalax, who keep the crowd dancing to song after song of fecal grindcore absurdity, a suitable end to four full days of sonic violence.
As last year, these four days certify Brutal Assault an event that every extreme music enthusiast should pay attention to. Every major extreme style of metal, punk and experimental music is represented here both by established names and exciting newcomers, and together with the setting and accompanying programme this makes for a hell of an experience. However, note that as the festival has swelled into the behemoth it is, it has strayed far from its DIY origins. Prices are not low, corporate interests are at play, socio-political engagement is lacking (the festival’s official motto “against violence and intolerance” being nowhere on display) and some parties are politically dubious. After all, the event is in some ways a celebration of evil, though within friendly boundaries. In this, it sharply contrasts with another major offering by Czechia to the world of extreme music; Fluff Fest, the 17th edition of which took place this year on July 20–23. At Fluff, DIY anti-capitalism is the rule, anarchism, feminism and straight edge maintain a central presence, and participants find sustenance in cheap vegan food which at BA is difficult to find. Of course, Fluff is over five times smaller in audience, focused on punk rather than metal (though metal is present, as is experimental and even hip hop music), and played by obscure bands only; the only act to play both festivals this year were Birds in Row, who headlined Fluff. Nevertheless, for two music events so similar in sound, the differences in approach are striking, and unless BA takes cues from it in the future, Fluff should always be the preference for those seeking something truly authentic and engaged.
This article reflects the author’s personal views.