support Eluveitie + Dornenreich + Varg + Arkona
author EW date 08/03/10 venue Islington Academy, London, UK

Ah yes, one of those gigs I had been eyeing up deviously since the day it was announced, the yearly Paganfest tour has become a very successful enterprise with its popularity such that it has been a key determinant in pushing all things pagan/Viking/folk so deep into the metal heart these days that it could now easily be labelled a 'trend'. This year's line-up featured a strong variety in styles and a nice mixture of nationalities too in a scene one would assume is dominated entirely by Scandinavians: 2010 brought forth Arkona (Russia), Varg, Equilibrium and Dornenreich (Germany), Alestorm (Scotland), Eluveitie (Switzerland) and Finntroll (Finland). London's date did not feature Equilibrium and Alestorm (phew) but the start time was still set at an early 6pm, on a working Monday no less.


To a level of incredulity surpassing even many strong utterances of "wtf?!?!", some idiot had decided that Russian pagans Arkona should open the night causing severe grief for people like me coming straight from work desperately hoping to catch them. Despite their position of respect from those in the know and 5 strong albums behind them Arkona had been placed on a rotating slot with Varg and the folly of this decision was quickly realised from seeing them on their first ever UK show. The dominance of front-lady Masha "Scream" was a pleasure to witness; her wonderful range of vocal styles and unquestionable commitment to the proudly Russian music her band provide is what makes them so good on record, and now that I can say with experience, live as well.

Knowing from repeated listens to their last two albums "Ot Sedca K Nebu" and "Goi, Rode, Goi!" the layered and textured sound that Arkona possess I had wondered how they would transfer this to the live arena. The answer was some considerable amount of backing track. Yes ideally we would like them to be a touring troop of performers, ala Negurã Bunget, but given this prohibitive difficulty and cost a backing track of choral vocals and folk instruments gave the atmosphere that is present on their records and allowed for a fantastic sound through reducing the demands on the backline of the venue, a problem that can easily occur when a large number of instruments play concurrently. With a half hour set based very much on later records the only thing that holds me back from giving Arkona a higher mark than this is that short set length, for tonight these Russians were brilliant, giving a performance none of the other bands were ever likely to match and highlighting their position at the bottom of the pile as some kind of very unfunny pagan in-joke.



Excuse the pessimism but I knew that for personal reasons surrounding the gig and after Arkona's brilliant set things could only get worse...and duly they did, for a couple of hours at least. The mystery of Arkona's bottom billing continued when it seemed none of my surrounding contingent knew of Varg, with most also agreeing that regardless of their quality their choice of band name is deplorable. I'm guessing it probably means something else in German but the metal world has one famous ‘Varg’ already, and it will never be these guys.

Anyway, on Varg strode to the thankless task awaiting them resplendent in red & black battle paint, obviously plundered from Turisas' handbag when they weren't looking, to produce a display that was...average. In any setting Varg's performance would have been acceptable enough, forging a heavy viking/death metal sound duly referencing Amon Amarth, but the feeling of genuine pagan passion that emanated from Arkona was never going to be summoned by these warriors and as such their set drifted by largely without great fanfare. The stage presence of the band was at least enough to keep watching the band for; vocalist Philipp "Freki" Seiler made an engaging frontman to listen to between songs and there was enough hair flying on stage to keep the attention of the crowd pointing their way, but for someone like myself only briefly acquainted with their music beforehand I was never tempted to rush off and buy their CD at the merch stand, alongside the obligatory beers that were awaiting.



Based on prior knowledge of all five bands I had estimated Dornenreich as the most unusual act on the bill tonight as a recent listen to their admittedly old "Her Von Welken Nächten" has still left me scratching my head in concluding if it is the work of deranged geniuses or jokers, but opening their set with just a violinist and acoustic guitarist suggested I was probably correct. The highly uncomfortable atmosphere I have found in listening to the band on record played a part in Dornenreich's show: a band with a violinist instead of bassist and a singer, who to his credit peddles an interesting and unusual vocal style but who chose not to waste much time between songs in providing a personality to latch on to, created a barrier to great enjoyment I was personally never able to cross. Dornenreich's avant-garde and progressive dark/black metal style has the potential for far-reaching enjoyment, and I feel the band's inclusion on last year's Agalloch tour where I first saw them was more suited to their style, but on a bill largely filled by bands who offer metal music to placate the soul with more vibrant pagan metal Dornenreich did not receive the support their eclectic take on the BM template probably deserves and their performance suffered accordingly. The repeated actions of clock watching and beer buying signalled it was time to move on with the evening...



If there is one band who've made waves in the field of folk metal in recent times that I have not kept abreast of it is Eluveitie. Yes I saw them at Paganfest '08 when my only memory is of the now departed twin brothers charging around on stage like they were preparing for the London marathon, so would their appearance two years later provide more meaningful satisfaction? No. In complete contrast to mainman Christian Glanzmann's laughable onstage attestations that his band were here to deliver some proper folk metal, Eluveitie are these days a mere melodic death clone of In Flames circa their "Reroute to Remain" period, merely with the addition of some interesting folk instruments. Being completely open-minded as to what Eluveitie were to offer me the sense of disappointment in songs like "Thousandfold" off new album "Everything Remains As It Never Was" was tragic; it was like being transported back to see In Flames and Dark Tranquillity in 2002 all over again, yet now under the guise of something original and 'folk'. So un-folk in nature and so un-interesting in sound were Eluveitie in songs like "Omnos" that a close friend of mine was brought to tears, with the only natural solution being to head bar-wards to drown our dissatisfaction in alcohol and wonder the hell what was going on. The emergence of one older song later in the Swiss' set showed the dramatic change in direction which has been undertaken in the softening of their sound in recent times, frankly a disappointing fact for a band proudly claiming to uphold a sound from which they once resided. Yes this opinion will no doubt infuriate many, but a spade is a spade and Eluveitie are crap.


By this point Arkona seemed like a long time, and many beers, ago but surely Finntroll, one of the most important bands in folk metal history, could sort things out and finish the night on a high? Well if you've listened to new album Nifelvind as much as I have (something I highly doubt) you knew that was never going to be in doubt. By deviating from the standard folk metal norm on this new album Finntroll have not only reinvigorated themselves but will hopefully provide a shot to the arm of the many bands releasing painting-by-numbers folk metal, themselves showing not an ounce of the spirit in their recordings that Finntroll continue to do to this day. Yes the keyboards are a vital factor in the overall Finntroll sound but it is the good old fashioned guitars that do as much of the talking, a fact we all know is good news when it comes to a live performance as if you've ever tried headbanging to a bloody hurdy gurdy you'll appear as stupid as the person who named that particular instrument.

The Finns' setlist represented a nice selection of material from across their 5-album discography with the notable highlights of course being "Trollhammaren", "Nattfödd" and my new favourite "Solsagan", a song I earlier predicted would become a live favourite with its mix of everything that makes this style of music so great. Despite possessing a healthy hour-long slot Vreth and his cast of trolls kept mid-song interactions to a minimum: enough to show some appreciation of the audience but with so many good songs spread across those 5 releases there was hardly a shortage of music that could be played.

A lack of specific detail in recalling Finntoll's set can only be blamed on the effects of countless quickfire beers as opposed to any band misdemeanours as my grading of their performance was earned in the most natural and unbiased way, realising that a great ending had been played out to book-end three mediocre performances (at best) with two excellent ones. I'd take that as quite a success for a Monday night out.


All photos by Jon Whittle with the exception of Varg taken by Greg Readings.

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