Witchfest International 2016. A name that encourages preconception. From hubble bubble, toil and trouble to Hollywood-hyped gothic glamour, witchcraft and paganism still maintain a veil of mystery to the uninitiated. One that Sam and I were ready to step behind.
To be fair, it wasn’t the first time we’d dabbled. From semi-ritual Sussex traditions to my enduring love for the Norse pantheon, to the deep spirituality we find in music itself, we’ve always sought the profound somewhere slightly left of centre. It was definitely the latter of the three, however, that brought us to the Brighton Centre on November 26th.
Inkubus Sukkubus, a band that had appeared almost literally on our doorstep during our Prague years, and that I’d had the great pleasure of interviewing, had now followed us to Brighton, and was headlining the prestigious witch festival’s opening night.
As we slipped through the salt-stained glass doors of the Brighton’s brutalist conference venue, I cast a furtive glance around at the congregating witches. An elderly couple in knobbly jumpers. A buxom middle-aged woman in a wheelchair. A spritely-looking chap with a long white beard. At first glance, it seemed like we’d come to the wrong place.
We made our way through the sprawling conference centre – an venue as unlikely as the audience seemed to be, with its foam ceiling tiles and drafty exhibition halls – and followed the gradual stream of humanity to the main hall.
To my surprise, the hall was filled with closely-packed rows of chairs, a far cry from the boisterous rock gig I had imagined. We seated ourselves near the back, and sipped at our ales until an unimposing-looking middle-aged gentleman with a long grey ponytail took to the stage, and somewhat awkwardly introduced the festival.
A representative of the Children of Artemis, the ethical Wiccan community who host Witchfest, this cheerful albeit slightly nervous MC wasn’t the thunderous-voiced warlock I had expected – nor was the first act he introduced the storm of pagan rock we had imagined.
Spriggan Mist describe themselves as a progressive folk rock band, and claim that their music and image is “based on old tales, spiritual pathways, dreams and reality”. With that vague description, we weren’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t the avuncular group of middle-aged folksters who bounded onto the stage.
“Have you noticed that all the witches are your Mum?” I whispered to Sam, wondering where all the gothy young things had got to.
While Spriggan Mist managed to fill the large exhibition space with plenty of colour and movement in the form of wild costumes, belly dancers, and even a small child dressed as a fairy, the middle-of-the-road music left a little to be desired. Vocalist Ann-Mari Thomas’ vocals were more reminiscent of country ballads than progressive rock, while bull-horned bassist Baz Cilia didn’t quite have the energy to match his imposing look.
While the front row was already on their feet and enthusiastically leaping around, I was distinctly underwhelmed.
That was, until the final number. Having already been treated to a number of lilting ditties about magical creatures and taking a nice holiday, we weren’t holding out much hope when the band introduced a song about the Norse goddess Hel. However, after a bafflingly cheerful beginning and much whirling from the belly dancers, a lively solo carried the song into a darker place.
Dissonant vocal harmonies over a bass-dominated bridge transported the song into more Gothic territory, before plunging into a wild guitar outro. But for the fact that Thomas had completely exhausted her vocals by this point, this powerful finale left us wondering what other tricks these unlikely rockers had up their sleeves.
Before we could find out, Spriggan Mist were whisked off the stage and replaced by the severe and shamanic looking Crow Dancers. Having seen the band’s parent project, The Dolmen, at Hastings Pirate Day earlier this year, I was intrigued to see how Taloch Jameson’s more spiritual sound shaped up.
As it was, the band astounded me. If I had walked into the Brighton Centre as a cynic when it came to magic, these war-painted musicians fully converted me – for magic is exactly what they created.
Rumbling, relentless drum beats called out to something primal and powerful deep within. A rich, breathy flute line tumbled over the top, reminiscent of Celtic and Native American traditions in turn. Guitar and keys wove seamlessly in and out of the mix as Taloch himself, with his shock of white hair and long black skirt, commanded the audience to believe in love despite political adversity.
And in front of all of this, like something straight out of Game of Thrones, stood Keyleigh Marchant – long blonde hair teased up and dressed with feathers, hips ever circling to the beat as she stared defiantly into the audience. Her dauntless stance and low, commanding voice held a certain power – and before long, that power had me forsaking my seat to dance like a mad thing in front of the stage.
After a long, seamless set of tribal beats and bizarre basso profundo vocals, I burst back into the bar, somewhat breathless, to hear an older lady in the queue for the toilets sum the set up in a sentence:
“I’d like to see that band again, but after I’ve done a lot of magic mushrooms.”
Now that’s the sort of witchy decadence I was expecting from the night!
As more and more witches filled the small gap in front of the rapidly emptying chairs, it was time for the grand finale – the effortlessly ethereal Inkubus Sukkubus.
Fronted by married and musical partners Candia and Tony McKormack, the band never fails to combine the comforting sense of a mother goddess with a sharp thrill of the sexually-charged arcane.
Backed up by bassist Dean Rhodes and their trusty drum machines, the couple made an intimate space of the enormous stage, peppering their Gothic appeal with moments of lighthearted silliness. Candia, in particular, bounded exuberantly back and forth across the stage, one moment a gleeful maiden and the next a seductive spirit.
While classics such as Heart of Lilith and The Goat were well suited to this degree of theatricality, a particular highlight of the set was two of my all-time favourite Inkubus Sukkubus tracks being given a tender acoustic treatment. The first of these was Sabrina, a heartfelt ode to the River Severn, and the second was a true Yule anthem – and indeed, a worthy anthem for the festival itself – Pagan Born. In both cases, Candia showed the full range of her vocal ability with an ethereal purity.
Unfortunately the spell was broken all too soon, as the MC appeared onstage between tracks and explained that the set had run over time. While we were robbed of Inkubus Sukkubus’ grand finale, the set was an appropriately dark and warming beginning to the winter season – and one that fulfilled my personal vision of everything paganism should be.
That being said, I found the entire experience to be an eye-opener when it came to paganism in the modern community. While I had, half-jokingly, hoped to see pointed hats and divining rods, the reality was far more down to earth. In fact, at is core, Witchfest wasn’t so very different to the Christian worship events I’d attended in my youth.
After all, here were people of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life, reaching out through music and a tolerant community to something beyond the everyday. If there’s any truly significant difference to be found, perhaps it’s this:
Witches know how to throw a party.