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: Ghost – Meliora

Location: Linkoping, Sweden
Genre: Psychedelic Doom
Released: August 21, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

This being Ghost’s third album, I could make some cliché statement about this one being the charm if not for the fact that they already had me at their debut, Opus Eponymous. The combination of “Deus Culpa” and “Con Clavi Con Dio,” organ and all, is high on my fictitious list of memorable album openers and the rest of the album was generally pretty good.

Their follow-up, Infestissumam, took some of that sparkle out of their sound. “Year Zero” is a rare distinction in that it serves as a single for the album and is actually the best track on it. So after some legalese regarding their name and the “death” of Papa Emeritus II, the anonymous band created Papa Emeritus III and undertook a slightly different direction under producer Klas Ahlund (who has run the gamut of all kinds of pop music since 1998 ranging from Eagle Eye Cherry to Ke$ha). The easy assumption would be to declare that some shadow writer would come in and fuck everything up for the band and its image, but that assumption would be incorrect.

The production on Meliora is stellar, and the poppy elements of the production lend to some catchy music. What we have here is an album that is fun and has plenty of replay value, but to say that it is a truly great album would be a stretch.

“He Is,” and “Spirit” are both fantastic songs. The former comes across as an extremely well-done parody of a church hymn, while “Spirit” is another solid album opener for the band with a haunted house feel permeating the song, even during the heavier, Black Sabbath-y portions.

The rest of the songs are generally good, but have their flaws. “From The Pinnacle To The Pit” and especially “Mummy Dust” have a solid premise but are repetitive. “Absolution” has an amazing chorus and the most Kansas­-sounding bridge not played by Kansas, but the verses are forgettable. The ballad, “Cirice,” meanwhile, is too long for its own good. One feature that I really like about Meliora is its interludes, “Devil Church” and “Spoksonat.” I normally do not care for interludes, but they flow together well with the album’s main tracks.

Album closer “Deus In Absentia” is another haunting track; the echoing effect at the end of each chorus, as well as the choir section at the end of the song, really hit home. Surprisingly, Ghost’s Satanist lyrics are noticeably tamer this time around, and I think it’s a good look for them. Infestissumam came off as trying too hard with the shock factor, which was a hindrance to the overall package.

Adding some more progressive elements will help on future releases. For those who aren’t particularly obsessed with changing rhythms and melodies, Meliora will be a solid spin many times over with its doomy psychedelia.

Overall: Entertaining, but occasionally repetitive.

Rating: 3.5*

Listen to the official full-album stream with links to purchase Meliora here

Live Show (Non-) Review: Solstafir w/ Ancient VVisdom and Vit

Location: Columbus, Ohio
Venue: Ace of Cups
Date: April 28, 2015

By: Kris Kotlarik

I was looking forward to this show for a while. Solstafir is a band that I had been becoming quite fond of, while Ancient VVisdom has some solid material.

But then, out of nowhere, the show was cancelled. No explanation why, and even some accusations of fuckery. Let’s take a look at the timeline of events:

March 26: Solstafir announces North America tour on its Facebook page.
April 7, 5:17 PM ET: Vit posts on their Facebook page that the show is cancelled.
April 7, 5:25 PM ET: Starwood Presents, the promoter for the show, says the show has been cancelled due to “unfortunate circumstances.”
April 8, 12:12 AM ET: Fan replies to unrelated post on Solstafir’s page saying that they just heard the Columbus show was cancelled.
6:30 AM ET: Solstafir says “We have not heard anything about this.”
11:13 AM ET: Forum post says Solstafir told opening band Vit to mellow out their sound, and the latter refused, prompting the cancellation. The quote, allegedly supplied by their drummer, could not be found from its original source.
April 9: Vit replies to question regarding reasoning behind cancellation with a picture of the Rockstar Games logo.
April 11 and 12: Posts to Ace of Cups Facebook page about the show go unanswered.
April 17: Solstafir announces replacement show in Dayton via Twitter
April 28: Ancient Wisdom replies to a Facebook comment about the cancellation with the following:
“The show was canceled and moved to Dayton . It wasn’t our call and I’m unclear as to why we would cancel a show at ace of cups , a place I personally have wanted to play for a while now. We will make a point to come to Columbus at the next closest opportunity.”
April 29: Solstafir replies to Facebook comment about the show, saying it was out of their hands.

All of this is extremely disappointing; I understand that shows get cancelled occasionally, but usually there is a valid reason behind it. When a perfectly good show like this gets torpedoed, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to tell the fans why it was cancelled. What do you think the reason was? Your guess is as good as mine.

Update: That Drummer Guy reports that the account regarding Vit being the main issue on the bill is more or less accurate:

The tour manager did not want a Black Metal band playing the show; the venue [Ace of Cups] refused to kick them off the bill because they’ve been promoting the show and already sold a lot of tickets. Tour manager 86’ed the show. Threatened to do it at other shows as well.

If this is true, and I have no reason to assume otherwise given That Drummer Guy’s impressive lineup of interviews, then that’s just a shame. Metal fans and bands get accused of being elitist far too often, and this sort of thing adds fuel to the fire.

ATF Review: Gojira – From Mars To Sirius

Location: Bayonne, France
Genre: Progressive/Extreme Metal
Released: September 27, 2005
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All-Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

Have you ever seen Gojira live? No? Here you go.

They rank as one of the few bands that I would go to great cost to see live if they aren’t playing in my home city, and with great reason. They kick just as much ass live, if not more, than in the studio. And when it comes to Gojira’s studio albums, From Mars To Sirius is at the forefront of Gojira’s five albums.

This album feels like your birthday, and every single gift you get is a $50 gift card. Most of them are for places that you can find a lot of use for, some of them are just met with a reaction of “fine, I guess I’ll spend it.” Your mileage may vary. Like the gift cards, many of the songs gain their mileage from one ginormous riff, but they exploit it in such a captivating way that it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to the same riff. It’s like getting $500 for the price of $50. Prime examples come in the middle of the album; “Where Dragons Dwell,” “The Heaviest Matter in the Universe,” and “Flying Whales,” along with the opener, “Ocean Planet,” all ride one big, huge riff to glory. “Dragons” and “Whales” are quite similar in particular, both featuring brief mellow interludes before kicking into gear, but it works surprisingly well from a technical standpoint and is extremely fun to listen to.

“Backbone” and “From The Sky” both have some truly extreme riffing in brief sections; the part in “Backbone” from 1:12 to 2:28 is immense. It basically comes out of nowhere and smacks you upside the head, but arguably the best part is the measure at 1:39 with four tightly played crash hits that signifies another round. The rest of the song is great, too, but if you’re not banging your head to that section, you may be listening to the wrong genre.

“From The Sky” is heavy and chuggish through out, but it crescendos into a ball of fire following a brief calm period. This ball of fire features yet another titanic riff and an excellent display from drummer Mario Duplantier in which he pounds away on his double bass pedals for over a minute without so much as breaking a sweat. His brother, Joe, is the guitarist and lead vocalist; the band’s current lineup has been intact since 2001, and it not only shows on this album, but their later ones, including L’Enfant Sauvage, their most recent effort. Word on the street is that they are recording a new album, and I’ll be waiting in great anticipation for it.

This is probably the closest I have given to giving an album five stars in a long time. However, it suffers from City Syndrome in that it loses a lot of the steam it had picked up by the time we get closer to the end of the album. That’s not to say songs like “World To Come” and “Global Warming” are bad songs, but both of them (especially the former) lack the punch that makes the front end of the album stand out as much as it does. Interestingly, back in 2007,* Joe Duplantier listed “World To Come” as his favorite song from this album. However, he later talks about “Backbone” as a song that sums up his life, as he sees humanity and himself as more than a physical state, something that can’t be destroyed by things like age.

Lyrically, many of these tracks are about the environment in one capacity or another, which is a very odd topic for an extreme metal band to cover. The band has been known (as mentioned in the aforementioned interview), to give money to Greenpeace, but Joe also says the band does more with their lyrics than merely saving Mother Earth from the humans; their themes also revolve around spirituality, which in and of itself is an interesting topic to sing about.

Lastly, the production on this record (and Gojira records in general) is fantastic. While many records either drown out the bass or put way too much of it into the mix, it’s right on point here. Everything is balanced out and dynamic, which makes even the songs that I don’t particularly enjoy at least listenable in a full album setting.

Overall: If you’re debating whether Gojira is better in the studio or live, the answer is yes. 

Rating: 4.5*

*Apparently, Gojira was behind Job For A Cowboy in a 2007 North America lineup. That’s cute.

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: Sabaton – Heroes

Location: Falun, Sweden
Genre: Power Metal
Released: May 16, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Traveler In Time

By: Kris Kotlarik

I almost forgot about this one. Sabaton thought they could pull a fast one and release a “deluxe” version of Heroes in 2015 with a bunch of live tracks, except I already had the “deluxe” version of this album when it was released last year. In this version, the second disc consists of three covers that I could have done without listening to (including an awful cover of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”) and two “original” tracks, one of which is another one of Sabaton’s metal tribute songs (this one to Manowar) and the other being a remade song from a previous album. So really, let’s just skip that disc, shall we?

At this point, Sabaton has three things going for them:

-In terms of entertaining metal bands in a live setting, few can rival them.They also tour at a brutal rate; the only other band that I can think of to hit Columbus as often as Sabaton has is Kishi Bashi.

-With respect to lyricism, most of their tracks revolve around very specific events in warfare. In Heroes, they decided to look at individual war heroes who were heroic in different ways. For those who think that metal lyrics are nonsense, this band may help change your opinion.

-I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the production from this album is an immense improvement over their previous album, Carolus Rex. They seem to have gotten the memo that making your albums unnecessarily loud might be a liability, and that shows in this mix.

All that said, the band’s songwriting peaked during Carolus Rex, which I regard as a fluke since Coat Of Arms marked a significant decline from their best album, The Art of War. Most of the “power” elements that made The Art of War and Primo Victoria fantastic power metal works have been stripped away. Occasionally, this is effective; “To Hell and Back” features lengthy nontraditional metal instrumentation that blends in quite well with the usual Sabaton sound. Then there are songs like “The Ballad of Bull,” which is adequately described by its name (unfortunately for Leslie Allen), and is so unbelievably cheesy that it just overtook Wisconsin as the leading cheese producer. Similarly, “Inmate 4859,” a song about the story of a man who voluntarily went to Auschwitz as part of the Polish resistance movement, is a plodding borefest.

Everything else is somewhere in the middle; “Soldier of 3 Armies” sounds like the perfect idea for a Sabaton concept album and has some potential, while the intro to “Night Witches” initially had me thinking I was about to listen to some kind of “dance metal” album. There’s a lot of decent and catchy material, but much like fellow Swedes Amaranthe, it’s largely forgettable.

Overall: Preserving history does not excuse unoriginal songwriting.

Rating: 2.0*

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*