More because of its small size than in spite of it, Beyond The Gates has become one of the underground’s most revealing bellwethers. Combining established, if still cult-minded acts with the more exotic strains flourishing in the shadows, every year has offered a sharply focused snapshot of where the scene is headed that’s not possible with larger-scale festivals. But where previous years have shone light on the more ceremonial realms, it’s telling that BTG’s fourth incarnation offers not a single shrine, goblet, candle, incense stick, cowl or mask, and festival openers MISÞYRMING  are a good indicator of the gnarlier aesthetic that’s taken its place.
One of the most talked-about black metal bands to have emerged in recent years, the Icelanders might have borrowed some of Deathspell Omega’s mottled guitar tone, but rather than seek out esoteric territories, theirs is a charged, personal crusade that heads out into unmapped psychological terrain, the kohl-streaked figure of frontman DG straining with the surge. Ireland’s ZOM , for all their reverbed vocals and tempestuous death metal frenzy, also mark a shift away from more occult territories, but it also leaves the band no more than the sum of its parts. Sonically akin to a cartoon dust cloud with rabid dog snouts appearing randomly out of the melée, they turn up the heat in the subterranean cellar, but the cavernous atmosphere you’d normally associate with such unruly antics is noticeably absent.
Bathed in Watain-style blood, ONE TAIL ONE HEAD  are finally starting to find more dimensions than the priapic, black metal blast that’s marked out previous gigs. No longer merely straining at full-pelt for the majority of their set, there’s now a range of dynamics, from strident mid-paced chants to gradual build ups that at least starts to justify the hype they’ve generated in their native Norway. They’ve still got a way to go before they reach the mesmeric states of ASCENSION , mind. Featuring Secrets Of The Moon guitarist Arioch on vocals, his painted white outfit isn’t the only standout aspect of the night as songs roll forward on a bedrock of consciousness-retuning conviction. Coming on like an arduous quest whose end is finally in sight, this is a bloodied trawl to the edge of revelation and long after they’ve left the stage you swear the air is still smouldering. For all their longevity MARDUK  still have all the driven, snarling malevolence to hold their own in this company, not least to the hulking presence of frontman Mortuus, but tracks from latest album Frontschwein barrel into the storming Slay The Nazarene as a suitably drunken crowd lose their shit.
What is it about Swedes and premature, just-when-it-was-getting-interesting departures? Although it isn’t announced at the time, MORBUS CHRON  are following In Solitude into the void, and what turns out to be their last gig gets a mixed reception – too widdly for some, intricate and immersive for others. However, the band’s journey from occult-styled death metal into progressive, if still damnation-tainted, waters has been a remarkable transformation, Robert Andersson’s murky, Tardy-esque vocals an incarcerated howl echoing through a labyrinthine web of riffs whose natural flow finds itself at the mercy of an unsympatheic PA. The sound hasn’t quite reached optimum pitch for BÖLZER  either, but so thorough is the exorcism KzR performs on his guitar they all but escape the mix’s gravitational pull. Not so much playing riffs as channelling virulent, room-filling energy that only occasionally submits to the pounding, groove-battery of the percussion, tonight is an entrancing rite, KzR’s full-body armour-plating tattoos marking him out as some warrior priest you really wouldn’t want to fuck with.
Bringing some unabashed showmanship to BTG,** TRIBULATION ** are clearly stars in the making, the ghouled-up four-piece bringing the same play-out-of-your-skin urgency as In Solitude when they ravaged BTG in 2012. Taking that twilit, very Swedish sense of melody into new gothic terrain, tonight finds them brimming with anthems that feel like you’ve entered an enchanted graveyard to find a host of spirits in the middle of a Bacchanalian orgy.
Having spent 25 years below most people’s radar, Greece’s** ZEMIAL ** prove themselves to be an intriguing oddity, their taut, sharply defined sound moving between thrash, classic metal, prog and jazzy interludes before you’ve realised it. Finland’s black metal scene can often seem hidebound by its orthodoxy, but if ARCHGOAT  aren’t exactly rewriting any rules, their death-infused descent takes on an overpowering pull, drawing in some South American-style primitivism before belching out everyone into the torrential rain and teeming bar upstairs.
Primordial frontman Alan Averill isn’t one for self-deprecation, but fronting his doom outfit DREAD SOVEREIGN , his introduction of “a bunch of cunts from Ireland” is balanced out by a typically impassioned trawl through blighted realms of righteous heresy, musical nods to Candlemass and a shit-hot guitarist playing Venom’s Live Like An Angel, Die Like A Devil as if he’s on a pyre with the flames having already reached past his feet.
A space-rock outlet for a host of Norwegian underground musicians, and fronted by a theremin player who looks like one of Hogwarts’ more eccentric employees trying to get a spell to work, SPECTRAL HAZE  will later tell you that this was their worst ever gig, but for newbies their wig-outs are pure Hawkwind-fuelled bliss. Putting **RANGER  **on in front of room filled with drunken metalheads is like throwing a wildebeest into a piranha tank as the Finns’ unchecked, can’t-fake-this-crazy speed metal goes into breathless full throttle and battle anthem after battle anthem mows down any brain cell foolish enough to stand in its path. This is blistering, denim-clad bliss that terraforms the Garage into a sauna you’d probably have to be Finnish to withstand.
If GRAVE PLEASURES’** ** Dreamcrash album demands more investment than Beastmilk fans were expecting, live they’re not only as immediate as their previous incarnation, they now look like a fully fledged gang as Utopian Scream and New Hip Moon throb to stretched-taught grooves, the more garage-y vibe proves a perfect fit for the surroundings and Mat McNerney’s imperious introductions suggest he’s auditioning for the narrator’s role in The Twilight Zone. Kevin Heybourne’s vocals might be a bit wayward these days, but that doesn’t take away from the abiding power of festival toppers ANGEL WITCH , every member dripping with sweat as songs like Sorcerers resonate with equal wonder and trepidation and the inevitable, eponymous closer brings Beyond The Gates to an end with a mass, delirious singalong that still echoes throughout the ages.