Catching one band in the live arena right at the top of their game is a special occasion, two something of a rarity. So when the threesome of Germany's Long Distance Calling fresh from their The Flood Inside album, Iceland's Solstafir and Norway's Sahg all rolled into Glasgow's Ivory Blacks, few could have expected the level of intensity, craft, skill and rip snortingly good music that the full trio of bands served up. Whether through the reasonably straight ahead Sabbathness of Sahg, the indescribable progressive black metal of Solstafir, or the one moment hard hitting, soft and smooth the next, metal meets prog via stoner and dance of Long Distance Calling, this was as good a selection of bands and music as you could hope to experience; all three tearing the small hot sweaty venue apart time and time and again.
It's funny how your own preconceptions of exactly where a band are in their career can be completely skewed compared to reality. So considering that the only band that I was properly aware of on tonight's bill before I set foot into the compact Ivory Blacks was Sahg - a band I thought were the biggest name of the three performing tonight - meant that I was both surprised at discovering they were sitting in the opening slot and intrigued by what lay ahead for this evening's musical extravaganza. I needn't have worried, because what was in store was pretty stupendous and a gig that will live long in the memory. Thankfully though the small floor was already beginning to fill as Sahg burst out the opening riff to what became an all too swift hurtle through their impressive catalogue. "Godless Faith" convincing both those already in the know about some Sahg-gy goodness and those merely curious, that we were about to witness tonight's bar being set at an incredibly high level right from the outset. Frontman Olav Iversen wasted no time in engaging the audience, demanding attention through some likeable stage banter, scythingly pin-point vocals and tight as a tight thing rhythm guitar work. "Mortify" and "Starcrossed" flashed past blinding all those standing just a little too close, before "The Executioner" introduced a more classic rock flavour, even slipping in a few bars of twin duelling guitars from the Thin Lizzy classic "Emerald" to the mix. Then with a flurry of fret burns from guitarist Thomas Tofthagen (also of Audrey Horne fame) and a steamrollering blast of "Pyromancer" they were gone, leaving everyone breathless and wondering if they would be matched...
Well all that is except Solstafir who strode confidently on the stage to unleash a four song, forty five minute set of immense brutality and beautiful fragility. Don't get me wrong, this is a foursome who live by the riff and the mighty riff at that, however the cymbal pinging and bass meandering that slowly cranked the handle of "Ljos I Stormi" (the first three songs were all sung in Icelandic), illustrated perfectly how a hammer of metal to the head is all the more gleefully accurate if it is accompanied by an altogether less abrasive, if no less hypnotic counterpoint. "Svartir Sandar", which singer Ađalbjörn "Addi" Tryggvason translated as "Black Sand" - while also explaining in a perfect Scottish accent that he used to reside in Glasgow, casually and skilfully slapping down a playful heckler as he did so - refers to Iceland being known as the home of volcanoes and with the song frantically spewing forth burning time changes aplenty, acting at one point almost as a life-giving heartbeat, it is no wonder. The song revels in a cloying, gnawing riff which is given release by a more straight ahead section, while leaving you yearning for the welcome return to the insistent gloom. However as with the other three tracks thrashed to within an inch of their lives, it is the underlying intricacy and beauty which is weaved underneath the fury, which truly entrances and enthrals. "Fjara" revealed "Addi's" superb clean singing voice, the rest of his offerings coming across as gargled, yet tuneful strangulations (not growling by the way), even causing bassist Svavar "Svabbi" Austmann to sway his pigtails to the music. However the contributions from Sćţór Maríus "Pjúddi" Sćţórsson on guitars, who looks like a down on his luck Micky Moody (Whitesnake) and stunningly powerful and precise drummer Guđmundur Óli Pálmason can in no way be understated, something underlined during the closing song of "Goddess Of The Ages", which trumped everything that had come before. Sahg may have set the bar high, Solstafir didn't vault it, they tore it down, stamped it into smithereens and set the remains on fire...
What became immediately apparent when Long Distance Calling sidled on to the stage for a rather OTT soundcheck - where even his bandmates asked drummer Janosch Rathmer to quit his over enthusiastic workouts - was that LDC were only headlining in name, with most of the youngsters in attendance clearly having already been served what they came to savour. Suddenly the interesting task of a closing act needing to win round an audience that they may have rightly thought to be their own, was afoot. Initially it proved a stumbling block however as Long Distance Calling progressed (pun intended...) through the night, a band capable and willing to master the age old and often forgotten art of building a set, was revealed. Each song through "Nucleus", "The Figrin D'An Boogie" and "Inside The Flood" built the intensity, layers of keyboards and hammering guitars mingling with melodic breakdowns and almost ambient passages to truly take those in attendance on a journey of many colours. The final song of that opening trio also saw keyboardist Martin Fischer delivering the band's first vocal of the night, adding a new aspect to an already simmering concoction of styles and approaches. The immense "Black Paper Planes" then brought Ficsher's keys more to the fore, although the constant ducking and diving rolls round the kit from drummer Rathmer proved the most impressive, justifying his pre-set exuberance. However the true strength, beauty and brutality - for that is the LDC mix - stems from the scintillatingly six-string work of David Jordan and Florian Füntmann, the pair locking together inseparably, whilst still finding the room to fire off at wild tangents when the need arises - bassist Jan Hoffman, who surprisingly takes up the position centre stage, earning that spot by rooting to the floor everything that LDC are about, mastering the metal maelstroms and binding the restrained sections with supreme ease.
Having built everything up, "Ductus" hit the release, alleviating the intensity with guitar chimes emerging through a haze of bass and keys, leaving the drums to remain an ever constant long distance call to worship, which by now the thoroughly won over crowd were indeed doing. "Tell The End" brought Fischer to front and centre for another cracking, effective vocal to a track that is a highlight of the band's new Inside The Flood album, before "Arecibo (Long Distance Calling)" and "Aurora" weaved their spell, one through stoner/doom grooves, the other avant-garde/progressive colours and shapes. Then with the awesome trance inducing slow build of "Metulsky Curse Revisited", it was all over, three bands and three hours gone in a flash, never to be experienced again, never to leave the memory.
Truth be told, encountering any one of Sahg, Solstafir or Long Distance Calling in this form would have been a reason to rejoice, however watching the three jostle and compete on the same bill was a superb experience. Who came out on top in the end? Those that paid to witness it, that's who!