Website: www.blackenfestival.com

Alice Springs metalhead Pirate’s long-running dream to bring the central Australian music community together at a singular and spiritual open-air location began just a little over a decade ago. It started with The Black Wreath, a label that was dedicated to releasing the music of local NT metal bands, then came Blacken the Globe, a small metal festival hosting regional groups and a few interstate acts. But even then, Pirate and his team already had a much bigger picture in mind.

“The vision for it has been unfolding since the original ideas were planted back in 2011 or 2012,” he explains during an early evening phone call. “The name and everything, the concept and the site where it’s held now were all part of that vision – we wanted to have this multi-day camp out festival and we wanted it to be there at Ross River, because it is an incredible piece of country that has a powerful energy. There’ve been a lot of interesting experiences that have happened out there, as well.”

Multi-day camp out metal festivals are hardly a new idea, but something rarely attempted in Australia. Metalstock was one such experiment in the mid 00s, only to die an ignominious death after four goes in 2008. Victoria’s Unify Gathering has a far broader scope, and due to its target audience, pretty much overlooks most forms of more traditional metal and heavy rock. That’s where Blacken Open Air comes in: 40 bands over three nights, under the stars in the centre of Australia, and this year’s event hosts international acts for the first time.

“It’s shaping up to be the biggest Blacken we’ve ever done, and I think overall there’s a whole bunch of new elements and a new understanding of the site and the layout and the art and how it all works together,” Pirate says of it. “We’ve had a bit more time and planning. It’s been three years since the last Blacken so there’s been a lot of thought and growth, and some seeds have been planted that are just starting to sprout.”

This year’s line-up is almost identical to the one that was proposed for last year but postponed less than two weeks out due to nationwide COVID border closures. While that threatened the very existence of the festival just as it was starting to grow, it turned out to be a backhanded blessing, allowing time to expand their vision even further. Headlining Blacken this year is Revocation, making the trip to Australia for this show alone.

“One of the reasons we got them on the line-up is because they’re so connected in the Australian scene and they’re gung-ho about Australia and they pretty much locked it in the day we put the offer to them. It’s a huge step, but also a manageable step for us.”

Pirate is quick to point out that it does mean the Blacken team has to go the extra mile to make sure things stay on track: “It puts some extra pressure on us – a band willing to travel that bloody far, you want it to go as smoothly as possible. You don’t want any gremlins in the speakers! We want to do the artists justice to honour their commitment, so it’s just about bringing our production and our crew up to that international level.”

Revocation aren’t the only big name appearing at Blacken Open Air this year – pub rock punks Amyl and the Sniffers will be there on their way through the country too. As one of the most in demand touring bands in Australia, Pirate pulled off a bit of a coup getting them on the line-up last year, and doubled down by having them back in 2022.

“The Cosmic Psychos played in 2019, and they were one of the highlights of the event for a lot of people,” he says. “Amyl and the Sniffers bring the same sort of raw pub energy, that Australian classic rock stuff and when I reached out to them, their management already knew about Blacken. Maybe the pandemic worked in our favour, because last year they weren’t able to go international and they probably definitely would have been, had borders been open. The timing was nicely synchronised. They’ll be back in Australia and it’s right in the middle of their Aussie tour, so we snuck them in there.”

Revocation’s technical death metal and Amyl and the Sniffers’ punk rock energy are just part of the diversity that will ring out across the Ross River Resort on a bill that will see everything from local powerhouse Southeast Desert Metal to ambient Celtic folk like Suldusk, rousing pirate metal crew LagerStein, crushing extreme metal from Abramelin, Psycroptic and Miazma, and the cross-genre Polynesian tribal sounds of Shepherds Reign. Unfortunately, one of the festival’s biggest supporters won’t be in attendance. Lochlan Watt has cancelled all future plans for his band R U N due to ongoing serious medical issues.

“He’s been one of our biggest supporters since day one,” Pirate says of the singer and Triple J radio host, who is once again battling brain cancer. “Since the very first line-up back in 2013, a little one day event that was mostly NT bands and a handful of others. King Parrot were announced as the headliner, and he saw that and came up and checked it out. I took him out to the new site at Ross River in 2015, and showed him where Blacken was heading. It took us another four years after that. When we finally got there, in 2019, he had his first surgery so he hasn’t seen the vision come together. It would have been amazing to have him out there with R U N. It’s so fucked what he’s going through. He’s such a great dude.”

Blacken has strong support from across the Alice Springs community, and not just within the heavy music scene there. In a recent interview with us, Psycroptic’s Dave Haley also noted that Blacken is very much a community festival as much as it is a music festival.

“I was definitely blessed with an idea and a vision and have some really close friends and collaborators,” Pirate says. “It’s definitely a community effort, and that’s not just the other bands that have been crucial to the running of things, but the extended family of Alice that have supported all the shows and the running of it. It takes a whole community to make it an event, and I take that responsibility seriously. It’s something I like to give back to the community.”

Pirate has a deep love for the Centre. He talks about it with a clear sense of spirituality, and sees it as a place that calls people together.

“There’s a certain synergy and a positive energy in this place, it pulls a certain type of person. People get called to this area to work toward something and sometimes I feel the country is working through us. It’s called the Centre for a reason and we’re inviting everybody to come here and be part of it.”

Blacken Open Air is about to take its next step beyond the fringe in 2022. With international artists and one of Australia’s hottest music properties playing this time, this could be the festival’s breakthrough year. Pirate is taking it one year at a time, as he always has. It took seven years to get the show to Ross River, so he’s not rushing things.

“We knew we couldn’t go from zero to a hundred. You’ve got to take people along on that ride and share it and grow it with people so they understand where it’s heading and why it’s heading there. It was only in 2019 that we were able to take that big leap after hosting six years of smaller Blacken the Globe-type events in town, and by then we’d had a large collection of Australian bands that had come and played and heard about it and spread the word for us. The whole way, people, especially the bands, have understood the concept and wanted to be part of it and wanted to see it happen. That’s the encouragement that we needed to manifest it and make it a reality.”

Word about Blacken is spreading. When Erik Danielsson of Watain heard about it recently, he emailed Pirate immediately, and he isn’t the only one. When band submissions open each year, Pirate examines them all carefully. He has a list of bands he’d like to see play, some, he says, “don’t exist anymore”, and discovers others through the application process. His mission is to curate the best event possible, and it’s far more than choosing the right bands.

“It’s curated pretty carefully but we’re definitely looking for creating that sense of community, as well. Which is an interesting contradictory concept in an artform of outliers of society. I can’t really articulate exactly what it is we’re looking for, but it’s something to do with integrity and intention.”

That’s something that’s hard to argue with.

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