Tag Archives: metal music

Monastaries, metal and craft beer in Sofia, Bulgaria

As I have in the past, I like to write about my travels. Though Stranger Aeons is not per sé a travel blog, travel is a great way to see the weird and wonderfull world we live in and the strangeness that it has to offers. This blog is about my trip to Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.

Arriving in Bulgaria, I was eager to find the Vasil Levski stadium. In this old, fifties stadium the Bulgarian National Team will play agains the Netherlands. Though I’m not highly national when it comes to football, I love the match experience and this I didn’t want to miss. Named after a revolutionary hero, the stadium may be old and lacking certain facilities, the pride of the fans is no less. Right outside the stadium you can buy cheap tickets and enjoy the game. I watched the Bulgarian underdogs beat my country by 2-0. The atmosphere was euphoric. A great start to my stay.

Clean streets and a clash of cultures

Sofia looks remarkably clean in the center, there is hardly any garbage to be spotted on the floor. The smaller shopping streets are filled with diverse buildings, wonky steps and really feel like Eastern Europe. Greece had a similar vibe to me and the Cyrillic writing definitely adds to the feeling of alienation.

If you look a little deeper you soon find that the nations checkered history is all over the city. From a Soviet time shopping mall to beautiful mosque buildings and orthodox churches. Being in the city at the end of March, I missed the fact that there were elections, so museums were closed, but plenty of ancient chapels and churches are easy to visit. The wondrous mystery of an orthodox mass, the patriarchs with their beards and robes, it’s a thing to behold. It’s a city that has many contrasts. From the fancy fast food chains and the shopping streets to the pretty university grounds, from the hip coffee shops to the market near the Alexander Nevski cathedral where they selll communist and Nazi artifacts.

Sofia has a rough charm to it, for those that can appreciate it.

Rila Monastary

Fortunately for us our hostel  (Hostel Mostel, great place to stay!) offered a bus trip to the Rila Monastary up in the mountains to the south. A 2 hour drive, but well worth your money and time. Stopping halfway at a road restaurant, you see the other side of Bulgaria. Impoverished, rather smelly and derelict. A family apparently ran the restaurant but calling it a restaurant might be a bit much. Still, it feels like the place is on the rise. Modern cars are parked next to the place and though garbage seems to be discarded randomly, there seems to be a pickup service for that.

The Rila Monastary is one of the most tourist parts of the country and in warmer months it’s crazy busy in the narrow valley with camping, barbecuing and partying people. We find the ancient monastary as a beacon of rest, impressive among the high, fog crowned mountains. Before visiting we drove a bit further to visit a cave where founder St. Ivan would have lived as a hermit. A strange place it was, with an era of mystery and the unknown, this place is special and surely worth visiting, though I doubt its impact may be as large in other seasons. Check out the amazing nature surrounding it, because you are in a fairy tale landscape.

Metal music on a night out

Though it doesn’t seem to be a massive scene, Bulgaria has a metal scene with some outstanding acts. The bar Live & Loud is hidden in a side street of the big shopping lanes and has a distinct industrial vibe. Drinks are cheap and the music comes from YouTube video’s. While we were there, the Ostring Bulgaria contest took place, a band contest for various countries in the east of Europe. We checked out Slave Pit, a band sounding a lot like classic thrash. It was good but we set our sights on another bar, but later we returned for The A.X.E. Project. A great place to check out for the metal loving traveller.

Food & Drink

Now, I’m a vegetarian, so finding out that my hostel offers both breakfast and dinner that is vegetarian really saved me a lot of work. There is plenty of street food available though for those who are not of this persuasion. Pizza, pastry and kebabs seem to be the main foods that you can purchase, but in the center a sandwich shop is easily found. I was surprised at the amount of vegetarian options in the city though and would particularly recommend the Sun Moon restaurant, with conscous food and a very friendly staff. It’s close to the center and hard to miss for it’s distinct look and little bakery.

You might be someone like me who likes his craft beer, but don’t bother going to the Ale House. It’s not the place you are looking for. A small menu and if you’re lucky an atmosphere of getting a pile of food, shoving it down and guzzling beers by the litre (if you’re unlucky it’s just empty). Surely you can go to the Irish Harp Pub, but if you really want to get some good special beers form this neck of the woods go to Vitamin B.  The craft beer shop has a modern vibe, clean and fresh with a wide selection of beers. Yes, they have a special Mikkeler connection, but if you are interested in the Bulgarian specials this is the place. Also, the staff actually knows the beer, even the taekwondo girl that served us was well versed in their flavors and keen to help.

So, should you go?

Bulgaria is a country often shunned, perhaps for the Cyrillic writing and the endless stereotypes. Sofia is a city with a long history though, but it is very much alive. Prices are very acceptable and the capital really offers a lot to those who give it a chance. Please go, you will love it here.

photo’s by Justina Lukosiute

The Metal Gimmick

I wrote a blogpost about the hipster metal thing and Deafheaven. Unfortunately, not everyone got the point. I was not trying to defend Deafheaven by saying they are TRUE and KVLT. I was defending the necessity and value of progressing as a genre. You can read that bit here.

It was also pointed out to me that there are bands doing great stuff and that is ofcourse an absolute fact. I named some  myself in that blogpost. I was confronted with names like Ghost and Nihill for example, as true progressive acts in the genre. Now, for Nihill I can only agree that their intense blend of black metal and an almost noise-like soundscapism and industrial barrage is going onwards down the path where I guess Dodheimsgard, Mysticum, Aborym and recently Blacklodge have been travelling.  Ghost is a whole different story, and a good way to get into another thing I wanted to write about: the heavy metal gimmick.

Do I need to say more than Okilly DokillyBabymetal and even that weird death metal band paying tribute to Breaking Bad?

Disclaimer, if someone actually reads those

I’m not saying that any band is a gimmick, but I’m going to point out a tendency that is rather worrying next to the elitism, mentioned in my previous post. I’m trying to make a point about a tendency that is very visible and slightly worrying, regarding the future of the music genre and the shape its taking.

Gimmick Gimmick Gimmick… I need some more

A gimmick is, according to google ‘a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.‘ Now, a gimmick in itself is therefor necessary. There are other words in use for it, but it’s kinda like your party trick, the thing that makes people look at you or your band. Gimmicks in metal are as old as the genre, from Black Sabbaths obsession with crosses to He-Man outfits for Manowar or the make-up and lingerie of the glamrock scene. It’s an element of the showmanship and hedonistic character of metal, even when it comes to the most conservative elements of the genre.

Some genres have managed to become gimmicks in themselves or make the gimmick part of its general identity. Black metal is one of those, which is why breaking with that identity is such a major crime (deafheaven again). Hardcore is not much better, specially the beatdown/tough guy side of things, which is a look you can practically mailorder from Impericon or whatever. But why am I making a big deal out of it?

Mainliner, Headliner, Headline

Magazines always have headlines and for years those names where those of the great bands that we still know and love. Slipknot seems to be one of the last in line for that, a band that becomes bigger than their next release and big enough to survive it. According to many metalheads, Metallica has not released anything decent since the black album (and there are those who hate the black album as well), but they’ll still buy a ticket to the show (sure, ‘Lulu’ was really pushing the patience of the fans). Same goes for a bunch of names, some slightly smaller, others bigger.

The headlines of a magazine like Metal Hammer have in recent years not featured the names of new bands that are up and coming for their progressive and spirited music. It’s always been that way that the industry can be massively wrong. Who remembers certain bands from the eighties and nineties that were hailed as the next big thing? Hell, who remembers the likes of Mudvayne and Ill Nino as bands that actually where significant to the genre? A shift has taken place to the circus act, the fantastic and weird and in a sense the gimmick in metal.
Recent favorites of the metal press include: Steel Panther, Ghost and … Babymetal. Next to those, you’ll find bands whose greatness was built atleast 10 years ago. Ok, and the rare Feed The Rhino or Upon A Burning Body, which is really just for the kids (or is it?).

The Power of the Press

Do I think lesser of these bands? No, I actually believe all three of them are great at what they do and in the case of Babymetal, it’s giving metal that odd edge and different thing it probably needs. This is not why the band gets attention, they get it because of the gimmick, the circus act. Same goes for Steel Panther, who are an overdone blast from the past act (in a way then a postmodern full circle it seems). Articles and reviews are not so much concerned when it comes to these bands with the music, but with everything around it. That is really worrying for a genre. This is ofcourse the curse black metal carries, the sensational overtook the musical.

It’s all about clickbait, being funny and getting some likes and that is a general problem with the press, both online as offline. Everything has to be insta-awesome, there is no time for records that take time. Metal has always been partly about being big and imposing, sensational and shocking, but also about music and that side keeps losing ground.

source: classicvinylrecord.com. This doesn’t really need any further caption… and its not even their worst.

The question is, where do we go from here? 

Ghost has just lived up to their name with the latest album, featuring my personal favorite ‘He Is’, connecting the band to Selim Lemouchi. It is an interesting fact how this song keeps the band attached to the undeground, atleast for one more record. Instead of going for the big hit sound, amplifying the gimmick, the band has with this move created credibility. Is that selling them short? Maybe, the album is totally great but isn’t it rather far removed from the metal sound (and does that even matter)?  Should they drop the masks on next album maybe, or would the Kiss effect happen? It’s hard to say, but right now they are flagbearers for the genre with an album that sounds remarkably little like metal.

The Babymetal hype has died down and I think that Steel Panther had its moment of glory too. Ghost might be heading down the path of Slipknot, taking a gimmick all the way to the top. Who knows? But where is the purism?

The music

What was the last band that made it on music alone? Whose merit was just that they knew how to write a great tune without some over the top sensationalist antics on stage or crazy outfits? Volbeat managed to walk the line in a way. Mastodon relied little on their artwork in the eventual sound and bands like Bullet For My Valentine and Avenged Sevenfold can hardly be considered names that made the genre move any step forward. Still, these are bands we liked for the music, not the arty things around them.

The problem is that the metal scene seems to be way to crazy about its gimmicks and is in danger of becoming the novelty itself. If metal doesn’t put the music first again (this goes for the metal music press even more so), the beloved genre will become a bastion for has-beens, hipster post-metal kids and odd Wayne’s World references in films. Perhaps Ghost has a part to play in that, perhaps your band does?

Metal has always been rich with gimmick bands. Look at GWAR, Kiss or anything fromt he eighties. Look at the whole folk-metal genre and Austrian Death Machine. Even a project like Nekrogoblikon is hilarious but based on the gimmick. It is awesome though and we should not be without it. We just need some balance now.

My rant was not enough? Read:
Top Ten Metal bands with unusual gimmicks
Bent out of shape: Has metal become a joke?