Folk Metal

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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Review: Artaius – Torn Banners

Location: Sassoulo, Italy
Genre: Folk Metal
Release: May 19, 2015
Format Reviewed: mp3 (160 kbps)
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

The quickest way to summarize my opinion of these Italian folk metallers is this: If you like Epica and Eluveitie with shades of Ensiferum (egads! E’s everywhere!), this should be an album that you will want to check out.

Of course, life is never that simple; Artaius has shown some significant songwriting growth in their second record, and although I would hold off on calling them a “progressive folk metal” act as they have been described, they occasionally show some remarkable flashes of musicianship. This is especially noticeable on the back end of the album (with the exception of “Pictures of Life,” an entirely uneventful ballad). “Pearls of Suffering” carries a hint of Children of Bodom and other melodic death metal bands in the intro, electing to go full synth, while also displaying elements of 70’s prog, especially Jethro Tull thanks to its use of a flutist. There’s also the lengthy synth instrumental in the middle that could have just as easily come from an Ayreon album.

“Dualita” is another solid track with a blasting start that is sung in Italian. Other solid cuts include “The Hidden Path,” “Leviathan,” and “By Gods Stolen,” all of which showcase a wide array of stylistic influences for the band. Where this album falls short, however, is an occasional lack of cohesion coupled with some unclean mixing. This is especially noticeable on “By Humans Reclaimed,” where lead vocalist Sara Cucci, who is solid for most of the record, clashes in sound with the rest of the instrumentation. Something about it just sounds like she was forcing the vocals too hard and paid the price for it as a result.

One last point of interest to look out for is the cameo appearances by Italian singers Lucio Stefani and Dario Caradente, as well as Tim Charles (Ne Obliviscaris). However, none of them really stand out in their performances, which happens occasionally. I get that. But I was under the impression that anything Tim Charles did would basically be a touch from heaven (or, you know, Australia). That was a little disappointing.

In any case, much like a football player making the “big leap” in between their second and third seasons, I expect Artaius to make the leap on their next release. They showed some solid ideas on this one; now it’s all about putting it together.

Overall: Excellent at times; rough on occasion. 

Rating: 2.5*

Review: Skyforger – Senprūsija

Location: Riga, Latvia
Genre: Pagan/Folk/Black Metal
Released: April 6, 2015
Format Reviewed: mp3 (320 kbps)
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

On top of being an absolutely gorgeous region, the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all have some well-known folk metal exports. Estonia has Metsatoll; Lithuania has Obtest; and Latvia has Skyforger.

It makes sense that the people of the Baltics might take up a music genre that lives in days long past; these countries have been subject to the whims of the Germans and Russians for hundreds of years. Even now, Russia still takes custody of the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave bordering both Lithuania and Poland…for some reason. And don’t even get me started on the Karelian Isthmus in (what used to be) Finland.

For 24 years, Skyforger has been carrying the torch for Latvian metal, building up quite a reputation for themselves along the way. For this album, the band decided to write about the people of Old Prussia, not to be confused with the behemoth Kingdom of Prussia (Senprūsija means “Old Prussia” in Latvian). In terms of overall sound, they carry a lot of traditional elements of heavy metal with them but also add folk elements that enrich the music. This also has a much more polished mix to it than some of their older albums, such as Perkonkalve. However, there are less folk elements here than on those earlier releases.

Following the short and pleasing vocal introduction, the title track comes in blasting away, using an array of riffs, including a bridge section that features two flutes. “Sudāvu jātnieki (Sudovian Horsemen)” is also quite heavy. I also quite enjoyed the last few songs; There’s a very brief section towards the end of “Divi brāļi (Two Brothers)” that made my ears perk up after already being engaged by a lengthy folk instrumental section. “Nekas nav Aizmirsts (Nothing is forgotten)” has the galloping riff that reminds me somewhat of Iron Maiden. The best track, however, may very well be the closer, “Zem Lietuvas Karogiem (Under Lithuanian Banners).” The vocal chanting that occurs several times throughout the album makes one final return here, but the singing sounds more memorable here than in other parts of the album, partially because of how it’s structured in nearly two minutes of run time. The instruments fade out, but the singing continues, giving the listener something to think about after the album ends.

The middle section of Senprūsija travels back in time in more ways than just its lyrical concept; “Tagad Vai Nekad (Now or Never)” has all the markings of an 80’s thrash metal song. If this wasn’t in Latvian, I might have mistaken it for a track from Megadeth’s Rust In Peace. “Herkus Monte” carries more of an 80s heavy metal vibe in the form of Helloween (but without the Kai Hansen screeching), and has a cool bass riff in the bridge that was unfortunately a little muffled in the mix. Unfortunately, this is not the only time this happens and is one of the few marks against this album. “Ramava” sees a return of the male vocal chanting from the intro sung over a series of power chords.

I am fond of this release, but that’s not to say that it’s perfect. The material can get a little repetitive, especially in the middle, and occasionally the bass is drowned out even in places where it should be emphasized. With that said, at least from what lyrical translations I have available to me, the lyrics are brilliantly written. Anyone with an eye for history should love the content of this album as a memorial to the greatness that once was the people of Prussia. The info provided from the band, which reads as a history lesson of sorts, describes a struggle between Paganism and Christianity (Happy Easter, everybody!), one in which the native pagans would eventually lose in a sign of things to come for the Batlic peoples over the next 700+ years. Although lyrical content isn’t everything, it certainly does help to have this kind of historical context being the fuel for your inspiration.

Overall: A strong album from Latvia’s folk metal kings.

Rating: 3.5*

Review: Eluveitie – Origins

Location: Winterthur, Switzerland
Genre: Folk/Melodic Death Metal
Released: August 1, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

The popularity of Eluveitie has always mystified me. While their releases and live performances feature authentic folk instruments, the music has never struck a chord with me. I’ve always been under the impression that Eluveitie has essentially forced their sound from one album to the next. While I may not be a complete fan of fellow folkers Turisas‘ newer works, they have shown that they are not afraid to change up their sound, which I embrace as a progression for the band.

I came into this review of Origins expecting to come perilously close to roasting it. But much like every other Eluveitie release, I am completely indifferent towards this. A large number of songs came and went without getting any sort of reaction, positive or negative, from me. The ones I particularly didn’t care for, such as “Vianna,” and “Celtos,” had a particularly poppy sound to them. If I were forced to pick highlights, I would start with “The Nameless” and “King,” the latter being the most energetic song by far (and some fancy fiddle work to boot). “The Day Of Strife” is also a decent track.

By and large, this goes down as an unremarkable album for me. It’s not bad; the production is nice, and the folk instruments liven up the arrangements substantially. But there are a number of spoken narrations that add absolutely nothing to the overall sound. The main problem is that there’s not enough to draw me back in for more, and that’s a major problem. 

Overall: Winterthur should stick with progressive death metal. They’re pretty good at it.

Rating: 2.0*