Pagan Rebellion Columbus: Arkona, Heidevolk, et al.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio
Date: September 12, 2015
Ticket cost: $14/$17
Merch purchased: Arkona hoodie ($45); Heidevolk flag ($15)

By: Kris Kotlarik
Feature photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

Coincidentally falling on my birthday, I can think of very few things I would rather be doing on such a day than watching a show like this; essentially, this is a quasi-Paganfest, and although I don’t carry a drinking horn around with me, I still have a great deal of fun at these shows. Everyone is in a great mood and ready to have a good time, without the threat of butt metal pit ninjas. With six bands, we got a good look at the local pagan-influenced metal scene, as well as some national touring acts and a couple of global folk metal titans. How did everyone fare?

The Conquering: 1.0*
0.5-point deduction for using backing drum tracks for any reason (even if that reason involves a broken foot)

Watching this band perform, you wouldn’t think they have been together for 15 years; everything from their style (the guitarists were shirtless and wearing corpse paint while the lead singer was dressed in generic black) and their performance were both out of sync. Their brand of black metal just wasn’t working.

The band displayed a good sense of humor, and it was interesting to see their bassist chugging a gallon of water between songs. From a musicianship standpoint, their best track was easily “The Veracity in Our Blood,” which showcases a good midpace riff and some of the vocalist’s harshest vocals. Unfortunately, they were noticeably out of sync during the thrashing instrumental section in the middle of the track, which was disappointing. Get well soon, great drummer! Conquering should be less of a challenge upon your return.

Kingsblood: 2.0*

The group displays a solid stage presence and presents a fairly standard deathrash (how is this not an officially recognized subgenre yet?), but they don’t stand out, especially in this billing. Plus the singer seems to be influenced a little too much by Max Cavalera, a man I have never been a fan of.

Winterhymn: 3.0*

The first “trve” folk metal group of the night, Winterhymn continues to prove that they belong on the national folk metal circuit. Featuring a prominent violinist, the band’s sound was full of energy and generally much clearer than the previous two groups. Virtually the only complaint I had was the sound of their keyboards; they were either virtually inaudible, or way too loud (most notably on “Stand Your Ground”). I also wasn’t overly enthralled with their lead vocalist, whose harsh screams generally sound out of place and occasionally wavered during the back end of their set. But their energy and enthusiasm were more than enough to hold their own on this bill.

Helsott: 3.5*

This group surprised me more than anyone else on this bill. The star of this group is flautist/singer/Simone Simons doppelganger Bri Steiner, who was all over the stage playing various wind instruments and laying down some impressive vocal melodies. Occasionally, however, feedback came from her microphones.

One qualm I had (one that you’re probably noticing a pattern of by now) was with the male lead singer, who was absolutely hammered and also wearing a Dimebag Darrell shirt. I get that the Dimebag shirt was probably a tribute to the late Pantera guitarist who was killed at Alrosa, but he came off as a drunken meathead during their set and that sort of took me out of the mood a bit.

With that said, the rest of the band was fun to watch, the sound was (nearly) flawless, and Steiner could frequently be seen getting into the mosh pit with the audience during the final two bands’ sets. In short, this is a fun folk metal group to watch.

Heidevolk: 3.5*

What other bands have two members, neither of whom are playing any instruments, serving as co-lead vocalists? I can’t think of any. That alone made this an engaging set; Lars Vogel and Mark Bochting complement each other very well with their own performance styles onstage. Their traditional heavy metal sound with pagan influences generally sounded a bit too loud, but was otherwise well-balanced among each member.

Joost Westdijk was highly entertaining to watch on drums; with his stick twirling and other showboating antics behind the kit, one would think that he was back at home in the Netherlands in the band’s practice studio. If there was one drawback to be had from their set, it would have to be the lack of live folk instrumentation; all of it was pumped into the crowd. It’s not the biggest liability, but a live folk presence goes a long way.

Heidevolk goes down as a band whose live performances far exceed the quality of their studio output, which isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Watching them live is a showcase of why folk metal makes so much sense in a live setting, especially when they’re as on top of their game with regards to stage presence as they were at this show.

Arkona: 4.5*

I had the pleasure of seeing Arkona at Kilkim Zaibu 2012 in Lithuania. This is the kind of festival that Arkona is perfect for; picture, if you will, a typical American Renaissance Faire. But instead of fucking hypnotists and acapella groups that are trying to turn shitass pop songs into “folk” arrangements (the same Renaissance Faire had a “glee” club that attempted to sing Lady Gaga songs. They failed spectacularly), the entertainment is some gritty, in-your-face pagan metal. To this day, that festival was one of the best concert experiences I have ever had. The people, the beer, the authentic display of old Baltic artifacts…if every Renaissance faire was like this, I would hit all of them.

Anyway, enter Russia’s Arkona, a blackened folk metal outfit with an amazingly talented vocalist who goes by the name of Masha Scream. Her clean vocals are enchanting and perfect for this style of metal, and she adds versatility with her growls and uncanny stage presence. In addition to the standard cadre of drums, guitars, and bass, Vladimir “Volk” Reshetnikov handles a number of different instruments, including bagpipes and various flutes.

Let’s cut to the chase here: What Arkona accomplished in Columbus wasn’t good. It wasn’t awesome. It wasn’t superb. It was superior. For one thing, Masha’s live voice has immensely improved since the last time I saw Arkona. It was already great; now it’s on another level entirely. The band’s sound has clearly evolved. Many people criticized their newest release, Yav, because it didn’t fit their expectations for Arkona’s sound. I think Yav was a remarkable stepping stone for the group, as it represents a more evolved sound and a renewed state of purpose, and that was in full effect at Alrosa Villa. Especially memorable was the glorious riff fest from Yav, “Na Strazhe Novyh Let” (On Guard of New Aeons).

Everything about Arkona’s performance was stellar; the sound was fantastic, the lighting fit wonderfully with the music, and each band member fully looked engrossed in their performance. Looking into the crowd, two things were visibly clear:
1: Arkona drew the biggest and most consistent mosh pits of the night by a wide margin. That’s not just a reflection of the amount of booze being consumed; that’s the amount of energy the band was displaying.
2: Outside the mosh pits, I couldn’t find a single person in the audience that wasn’t into their performance. Never mind the fact that 99% of the people in the crowd don’t speak Russian and therefore can’t understand the lyrics; in any direction, you could see shit-eating grins the size of Texas on people’s faces.

By all metrics, Arkona’s display of musicianship and showmanship was a rousing success. Plus their hoodie has amazing back art. Arkona was one of the pioneers of folk metal, and now they’re innovating it, both in the studio and on tour.

Overall: While most of the bands were solid and are worth a look, Arkona should be selling out festival grounds all over the planet. Their performance here is among the top ten I have ever seen, and a top-five show in this country.

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Photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

Arkona’s setlist in Columbus. Photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

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