Going to an underground metal show in a city results in a few recurring factors: First, the venue is generally a small club, with up to 500-600 patron capacity. Second, adjacent businesses and restaurants are flooded with individuals in black graphic tees and patched jean jackets. Third, upon entering the location, one can expect the bands to be setting up their own gear and selling their own merch. The Middle East Club is five adjacent dining and live music venues located in Cambridge, MA that is a hot spot for up-and coming and established groups alike, sporting rock, jazz, metal, rap and many more genres day after day. Of the five performance spaces, I have been to two: The Middle East Downstairs and The Sonia, both of which are below the other three venues.
Walking into the Middle East Upstairs for the first time on September 29th, the entrance at the back of the original Lebanese restaurant that serves as the face of the club and organization, what caught my eye were the many patrons seated at the bar, each sporting merchandise of black metal and funeral doom metal groups like Yellow Eyes, Wolves In The Throne Room, and Mournful Congregation, among many others. Placed at the back of the club was a small podium, behind which sat the ticket salesman and ID Checker, who with a bright grin both scanned my previously printed entrance pass and fastening the bright pink wristband indicating an underage patron. Next to her, a red door, which seemed to be bustling with activity as concert
goers entered and exited, presumably to use the restroom and use the ATM in the main restaurant. Above it, a number: 194, the capacity of the venue.
The Middle East Upstairs lives up to its name, with Islamic arches and columns flanking the smallest stage I have ever seen. On the west wall, a clustered bar was busily doling out drinks. The east was even busier, as the merch table was set up, with A.L.N., otherwise known as the man behind Mizmor, and M.S.W., or rather, Hell, accepting cash for fan’s tenders. As both artists are relatively underground, it was no shock that either would be running their own merch. As a bigger fan of the headlining band of the night, perhaps courtesy of his recently released third album, Cairn, and my limited funds as an unemployed college student, I decided to purchase a shirt from Mizmor, and meet the talented multi-instrumentalist himself. Surprisingly tall and thin, with a fitting buzzcut, he stuck out like a sore thumb among most of his contemporaries having long groomed hair and an occasionally portly stature. His warm smile sold me a large black tee, boasting the Cairn cover artwork, created by one of my favorite surrealist artists, Mariusz Lewandowski, entitled “Time Immemorial.”
After nervously complimenting A.L.N. on his latest album, I rejoined the large group that was culminating around the front of the stage. The merely 3-foot tall stage was already set up in full gear: lights, amps, guitars, and a drum set. After waiting around for about thirty minutes, Churchburn, a Rhode Island/New York-based blackened sludge metal four-piece, took the stage. The house lights dimmed once they picked up their guitars, leaving only the red lights above the raised performance section. When the audience had been shushed, the lead vocalists and guitarists introduced the band, and dedicated the set to the recently late Richards Brunelle, of former Morbid Angel fame, to which no cause of death was attributed. As the gain and feedback from the multiple amps began, the audience braced themselves.
The band’s blend of crushing sludge metal and emotional doom metal set the tone for the evening. While I had not been much of a fan previously, the group’s performance exceeded my expectations, and since I have listened to their full length-albums, The Awaiting Coffin and None Shall Live…The Hymns of Misery, both providing more of the well-made, brutal blackened sludge metal that I experienced that night, and subsequently making a sizable dent in my regular listening rotation. However, the two bands that followed Churchburn were who I was truly excited to see. Like Mizmor, Hell is a one-man Oregon-based sludge/doom project, fronted by M.S.W. While like their tour mates in principle, Hell uses droning guitar section as frosting on the already intense fuzz-lead sludge metal. Feedback, lengthy held tones and sparse but almost alien-like vocals are common in their long songs, including the monolithic and melancholic 18-minute “Mourn,” the defining first track from Hell III (2012). In addition to this amazing cut, highlights “Inscriptus” (Hell, 2017) and “Deonte” (Amarok/Hell, 2013) shook the small club. These were accompanied by dim red lights that provided the atmosphere fitting of M.S.W.’s talk-box-esque screeches, the second guitar and bassist’s reverb laden riffs and A.L.N.’s militaristic and meticulous drum playing (FYI, both A.L.N. (Mizmor) and M.S.W. (Hell) play drums in each other’s live acts).
With Hell’s set concluding after approx. 45 minutes, a short break was taken before both A.L.N. and M.S.W. retook the stage, this time as Mizmor. When the lights shifted green, I eagerly gritted my teeth in anticipation for, hopefully, a full playthrough of the bands most recent album.
But, Cairn in its entirety was not what occurred that night. Only one track from the new record was played. Was I discouraged? Absolutely not. The band’s opener, “VI”, was a foreign track to me. While I had listened to the band’s full lengths up to this point, I had not delved as deep as their splits and extended plays. From 2013’s Untitled Winter EP, this vicious creature was
birthed, and savagely did it roar. A.L.N.’s passionate and frightening vocal performance shined above all else during these four songs, with eyes bulging to an angry condemnation of the audience before him as he howled into the tall microphone stand. His chin extended outward when bellowing low growls, and pained despair was striking in his high-pitched cries of black metal-esque screaming. I have always been envious of a technique both he and M.S.W. have perfected; that of the whistle scream, where a vocalist is able to push out an incredibly high whistle while shrieking at the same time. Seeing this live was a highlight among the many things that were to come. “VI” is a slower and more longing tune closer attributed to doom metal, but was perfect setup for the following, more intense (and respectively black metal-influenced) tracks.
“Desert of Absurdity,” the first single and personal wish of mine for the set, followed, and kicked the bands performance up to 11. Energy was high in the crowd, as evident by the constant shifting of long-haired individuals’ heads back and forth to the melodic tremolo picking from A.L.N. and ferocious blast beats courtesy of M.S.W. Notably, M.S.W.’s drum work was much more serious and intense than A.L.N.’s, with his breaks being accompanied with his long hair draping over his face as he dropped his head down over the snare drum. This intense ten-minute track portrayed everything Mizmor does right in his music: aggressive black metal, emotional doom metal, and iconic nihilistic lyricism. One of my favorites from his new album, I was more than thrilled to hear it live.
Following this, the band played two songs from their acclaimed 2016 album, Yodh, rated by many as one of the defining albums of that year. These were “III: The Serpent Eats Its Tail” and “I: Woe Regains My Substance”. Both far more destructive than the previous two, “III: The Serpent Eats Its Tail” showcased their tightest and most powerful performance of the night, with
beautiful guitar melodies and light drum lines leading into a mournful and pessimistic tune with A.L.N.’s somber screams acting as their own instrument in the depressing composition. Lyrics like:
“Adversity, the very fabric of being
To be human is to hurt
Pain, a condition for life
Inseparable from existence”
showcase A.L.N.’s pained writing of these songs, which tremendously added to the amazing live performance.
Finally, “I: Woe Regains My Substance” highlighted the blistering speeds and aggression Mizmor plays out in the black metal sections of their music. Intense but comprehendible, the band hit it home with another masterfully played piece of blackened doom metal that left everyone satisfied at the end of the night. The variety of tempos in this song was truly a feat to behold live and was only one of the many aspects of this amazing show that cemented the fact that this was one of the best live bands I have ever seen. While Mizmor may have been one of the more recent discoveries in my music listening escapades, they have easily found their place, and you can bet that when A.L.N. returns to town, I will be returning to, presumably, Boston to see the show, no matter the venue or cost.