Halloween came early to Manchester this year, when so-called devil worshippers Akercocke returned after a five-year absence to curse the city once again …
Akercocke sold their soul to the devil two decades ago. It’s really the only way to explain why this mischievous lot have been head and shoulders above everyone else in the death metal scene since they were summoned from the abyss in 1997.
They are the quintessential English trouble makers, a throwback to 19th century gothic art and Hammer Horror movies where the villain is well-dressed, charming, and has impeccable manners. Indeed, you can just picture chief songwriter Jason Mendonca dipping his quill in blood and sipping on a glass of hundred-year-old French wine as he writes the kind of sinister lyrics and music that have defaced some of extreme metal’s foulest albums since their debut on Peaceville Records in 2001.
Akercocke know that any monkey can write basic death metal, but it takes craft to come up with an actual piece of art that is much more than just another death metal song. Mixing relentless speed with atmospherics, insanely catchy hooks and occult lyrics, they’re a band who write epic songs which twist one way and then another.
Their songs tell stories; they take you on a journey down a very dark lane at night. You don’t quite know where the lane is going to end up, but there’ll be a remote, lighted farm house that beckons you, leaving you with a rather hairy decision to make. You’re hungry, thirsty and lost: do you knock on the door and disturb the inhabitants at such an ungodly hour?
The band has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. Despite their willingness in interviews to discuss a variety of topics, from their music to what makes the perfect cup of tea to what it is to be an English gentleman, you cannot make the kind of music Akercocke create without at least a thin coat of London fog masking your true reality. Moreover, being self-proclaimed satanists only further heightens the sense of mystery and intrigue that surrounds this English metal institution. Do they actually worship the devil, or are they just trolling us? Whatever the answers are, they leave you curious to know more, even if you try your hardest to stay away from the dark arts.
And things got really mysterious a few years back when, after touring in 2011, they vanished like a spectre that had done its deeds. Following a period of inactivity, their website was taken down, and it seemed as though Akercocke would be nevermore. Rumours that they had returned to the fiery furnace below abated.
But fear not, because everyone’s favourite satanic English gents are back, and as Mendonca told the crowd in Manchester last night, “it’s been too bloody long.” Yes, sir! It has!
They are no longer attired in elegant cloaks in 2016. No longer do they command their audience to “praise Satan.” Such tomfoolery seems to be in the past. This is now just a well-oiled metal band who appear happy to be back. They are here to rock and re-connect with their fans through their love of music.
Their imagery – which the band have always insisted doesn’t actually mean as much to them as we all seem to think it does – has also changed. They have disrobed their saville row suits, with singer Mendonca opting to enter the stage with his naked breasts exposed like Lucifer incarnate. A crazed glint in his eyes, he emitted a cacophonous laugh before himself and his acolytes maniacally launched into opener Sephiroth Rising. It was quickly followed by a faultless rendition of Hell, after which Mendonca greeted the black-clad vagrants gathered before him with good humour.
A chilly, star-studded sunday night in October was the perfect theatrical setting for Akercocke’s atmospherics. They’re very much a band for the witching hour. It’s the kind of music that combines elegantly with the frosty impermanence of the colder seasons to invoke a sense of dark wonderment in your soul. You just can’t imagine these guys even existing in the summer.
The first half of the set was largely made up of cuts from their first two albums. These are songs soaked in dark atmosphere, but they lack the lavish details of their later works. Where their early music is more like a macabre Poe short story focused on a single theme, their later music is Dostoevsky-esque; expansive, ambitious, penetrative, ensemble pieces that are also icily chilling. It was really with the release of third album Choronzon that the band started to introduce more melodies and catchy – but always sinister – vocal hooks. It gave their music more depth.
The band really hit a stride last night when they introduced new cut Inner Sanctum halfway through. “This one is about rebuilding after things have gone wrong. Remember, whatever goes wrong inside your head can always be fixed,” Mendonca told the crowd in what was an unexpected affirmation.
From Inner Sanctum onwards, the band plundered their most recent albums for some real powerhouse classics. Verdelet was followed by the absolutely savage The Dark Inside, which was followed by the stomp of Leviathan. Finally, the crowd was losing its mind in a frenzy of death metal, sweat and seizure-inducing lighting. It was mayhem.
Disappointingly, Akercocke chose not to perform My Apterous Angel, which is arguably their finest song. Shelter From The Sand would have been warmly received, too. But it’s fair to say that, as I made my way up a chilly Oxford Road after the gig, I was well pleased that my good friend and I had been among the vagrants who had turned up to this particularly frightful autumnal gathering.