First formed in 2006 to play a few small gigs in Israel, Gravetemple was never a Stephen O'Malley project we expected to see live. When we learned that they were to play this year at Birmingham's Supersonic Festival, we immediately began looking into coach tickets, which is shocking because we are quite lazy when it comes to escaping the warm comforting embrace of the M25. Fortunately we didn't have to, as the band booked a gig at ULU, a venue we've come to happily associate with inner ear punishment. As 10 July drew closer, the event was moved to The Underworld, giving us a chance to experience the band in one of our favourite places for intimate metal engagements. Given Gravetemple's affinity for fog, too, this small room probably worked out for the best: The Underworld seems specifically designed for achieving zero visibility.
With the smoke machine on overdrive, Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O'Malley took to the stage first to kick up an unholy thunder so loud our clothes vibrated. After 10 or 15 minutes of their powerful drone, Attila Csihar finally emerged sporting a smart shirt, sunglasses and an incongruously slick haircut. He looked more like a Mafia enforcer than a black metal vocalist, but it was to be a night for shattering such stereotypes. We anticipated Ambarchi to fit more closely with our image of the reserved and studious experimental musician, but when we reviewed our photos of him the next day, he looked every bit as rock star as O'Malley.
Attila's cracked voice was only slightly distinguishable from the backing drone. Occasionally we thought we could make out what he was saying, but each time the moment passed and his unsettlingly imperceptible croak fell back into the fog. It wasn't long before we entered a trance-like state, thankfully remaining conscious enough not to drop our pints. As the set reached its conclusion, clean organ tones came out of nowhere to swallow the sound into a rumbling mutter. A brief still and silent moment followed before the crowd erupted into claps and whistles. Oren and Stephen stayed on stage for an extra minute, throwing up the horns to send everyone home with metal on their minds.
While we do wish attendance would have been high enough to fill ULU as originally planned, it can't be denied that The Underworld was better suited for Gravetemple's dark sound. We can't imagine this music unfolding above ground, with its gravelly vocals and buried-alive bass having no place outside of the shadows. The likelihood of seeing these musicians play as Gravetemple again anytime soon is probably quite small, but Stephen O'Malley frequently brings his many projects to London and Oren Ambarchi will make a solo appearance on Monday at the Luminaire. If you saw Gravetemple with us and enjoyed their power to warp time through slow-moving sludge, you should find much to like about Ambarchi's more sparse work with guitar tones.
By Jo Tacon and Dave Knapik.
Image of Gravetemple's Oren Ambarchi taken from daveknapik's Flickr photostream.