Heidevolk, Celtachor, Cryptic Age
23rd February 2013
Let’s start at the very beginning (as I have heard tales that it is a very good place to start). The venue. The City of York is a fantastic backdrop; its rich heritage makes it an ideal location for a gig of this nature. (Also, the people in York are fantastic. Twice, in York, I have lost my cell phone [Editor’s note: She means mobile phone] – and twice, in York, it has been returned to me.) ‘Niche-y’ evenings such as tonight tend to draw crowds from far afield: during the course of the evening, I met people who travelled from as far away as Whitby, Newcastle and Luton, to name a few. Therefore, the relatively central location of the venue proved ideal. The venue itself is ideal as well – large enough to hold the ample crowd but small enough to still feel intimate, even when standing at the bar. The sound was top-notch – all the instruments evenly balanced and all three (very different) vocalists cut through like a sword through leather. The line-up was an unusual but well-chosen blend – all three bands had similar lyrical themes of mythology and a folk feeling in their music. All three bands were, however, very different in their approaches to this, which was refreshing – the audience was treated to three very different styles so didn’t become too bored of the same genre by the end of the night. So basically, it was folkin’ well organised! (Okay, that’s the last ‘folkin’ pun…for awhile. Editor’s note: Thank the gods for that!)
Local progressive folk metallers Cryptic Age kicked off the evening in a suitably epic fashion, mixing brand-new songs with tracks from their CD and EP. Their (new) opening track Ad Astra et Ultra brings vocalist Jenny Green out of her normally stratospheric heights at times and proves her vocal versatility with warm, mid-range tones. Tracks like this show that she is more than capable of range as well as clarity in her vocal performance. Her trademark high notes are still dominant – sharp as a razor and clear as glass – and she gives an engaging performance as a frontwoman (not as easy job, when behind a keyboard as well)! Green’s keyboard performance is flawless; well-chosen effects created an ethereal feeling and she shifts effortlessly between using the keys atmospherically and as a lead instrument.Hallam Smith’s lead guitar sings beautifully and his expertise with the instrument is clear – Smith’s solos are technical and complex, yet appear effortless as he grins his way through the gig. He trades and harmonises lead parts with Green’s keys as nimbly as a leprechaun sorts through gold. Well-constructed and never ‘over the top’, Smith’s guitar performance definitely stays on the right side of the line between ‘enjoyable and impressive’ and ‘showing off’ – everything is done to suit the music.
Bassist Tom Keeley has an impressive stage presence – at one point, certainly, his windmilling knocks some dust off of the ceiling. Beyond this, though, he is a masterful musician, ably ‘gluing’ together the drums and the lead sections. In a four-piece band, there is sometimes a temptation for a bassist to simplify; however, Keeley’s riffs are complex and are as interesting to listen to as the lead instruments. Drummer Alex Brandsen drums adeptly, acting as the gears that keep the machine moving forward. He drives numerous time and tempo changes smoothly and his solo and fills are engaging. Brandsen is clearly a drummer who is an artist, rather than a machine; his metronome-like precision is carefully balanced with enough artistry and flair to give the set interest and spontaneity. Overall, Cryptic Age’s performance was tight, creative and delivered with just the right mixture of passion and fun. It was also thoroughly enjoyable – an opinion shared by the crowd, many of whom were Irish jigging to No Folkin’ Way, the final, instrumental track of the set. [5/5]
Few bands would dare to create music that oscillates between brutal, eyeball-popping, balls-out growling and soft, melodic, lilting sweetness. Even fewer can make it work. Celtachor does. Frontman – vocalist and whistle player – Stephen Roche pulls off both faces of the two-headed monster that is Celtachor with style… and just a little bit of scary. With a stage presence that makes him seem like a Klingon transported into medieval times, Roche has a fantastic and mesmerising effect on the crowd. An intensity in his facial expression gives a slightly psychotic impression and when he instructs the crowd to clap, headbang, chant, etc. they do so. For me, this was 75% because I was enjoying the music and 25% because I was a little bit afraid that if I didn’t do as he said, he… might eat my skin while I was still wearing it. (Note – we spoke with him briefly after the show and he was very lovely, gracious and non-psychotic – but the stage act is very convincing.)
Roche shifts instantaneously between vitriolic vocals – with a scream that would melt the lead out of pencils – to a soft-spoken, honeyed baritone enrobed in a hypnotising Irish accent. His (and guitarist Fionn Stafford’s) skill with a small whistle adds an artistic touch that helps to set Celtachor apart from other pagan black metal bands and secures them in a class of their own. Guitarists Fionn Stafford and David Quinn show versatility in their double-barrelled performance. Bold, brash riffs that border at times on thrash are expertly executed and are always precise and controlled. Similarly, softer sections are performed artfully and with elegance, with complex intertwining melodies graciously taking a backseat to allow other instruments to come to the forefront. Solos are shredded like silk curtains through a tiger’s claws and the rhythm parts are a cavalry of riffs that gallop on apace and flatten the room. Both musicians have a remarkable stage presence and are engaging to watch as they own the stage.
The guitar melodies are complex and add interest to the pieces, providing the heart of the band. The melodies are reminiscent of old Celtic folk music – without relying too heavily on this style, proving that they are more than a one-trick pony. The complexity of the guitars also firmly plants the band in the black metal genre, as well as proving that if you’ve got two talented guitarists – you don’t need keyboards to put the ‘melody’ in ‘melodic black metal’! Bassist Oliver Deegan is the belly of the beast, with growling riffs that add a sense of darkness and danger to the mixture. His hammering riffs and compelling countermelodies surprise and intrigue the audience – and bring him out of the rhythm section – without distracting from the lead instruments. Quigley’s hand moves up and down the neck of his bass like a hummingbird from flower to flower, darting quickly back and forth. The warm tone of Deegan’s bass contrasts pleasantly against the icier guitar tones, hinting at green fields and Irish sunshine.
Drummer Anaïs Chareyre proves a savvy timekeeper – and if we’re going to labour the metaphor, her drums are the powerful legs of the monster that is Celtachor. Chareyre adroitly swaps between styles several times throughout the gig. She masters off-time sections with a progressive flair; drives the common time portions with machine-gun-like precision and adds in components of tribal drumming that keep reminding the audience of the Celtic roots of the music. The drums in Celtachor’s music do more than simply keep the time – they are an instrument themselves, driving the songs forward but occasionally pausing to have a spotlighted moment themselves.
Altogether, Celtachor is a force to be reckoned with. With a powerful mix of brutal black metal, haunting pagan influences and serene Celtic accents, Celtachor is definitely a band in a class of its own. [4.5/5]
Heidevolk’s first headline show on UK soil had garnered a lot of support and as the crowd anxiously awaited the band’s entrance, the area near to the stage became a crush of black T-shirts, long hair, drinking horns and pagan relics. The anticipation was a palpable bubble being blown, threatening to burst even as a blue balloon was tied to the drumkit. When the band’s suitably atmospheric introductory music began, the stage was awash in moody blues, setting the ambience. An eerie hush fell over the crowd, exploding into rapturous cheering as the band took the stage.
Vocalists Joris Boghtdrincker and Mark Splintervuyscht burst onstage like fireworks, each working alternate halves of the crowd and engaging the audience in a singalong straightaway. The crowd reacts enthusiastically – more hardcore fans picking up the call even before being asked, joined later by more reluctant fans and others who weren’t familiar with the melody at the start. Boghtdrincker and Splintervuyscht are fantastic frontmen, expertly coaxing the crowd (who, to be fair, don’t need much encouragement – they’ve been waiting a long time for this) to shout, pump their fists, show the horns – all fairly standard metal gig interactions – and then to bounce. That was more unexpected. Like rabbits on Red Bull, the vocalists led the way, followed by a more than decent proportion of the crowd. Partially due to alcoholic consumption (but mostly due to the zeal of the frontmen), the crowd eagerly participated and became a teeming, roiling mass threatening to boil over. By the third song, a reasonably sized pit had opened up toward the front in the middle. The crowd had this part of the club heaving: it felt as if it were about a hundred degrees despite the freezing outdoor temperatures – and there were approximately five oxygen molecules left. The crowd response generated by Heidevolk – and led by the two frontmen – was in a world of its own.
In addition to being engaging frontmen, Boghtdrincker and Splintervuyscht are talented vocalists. In a pleasing contrast to many metal bands, neither vocalist is a soaring, Bruce Dickinson-like belting countertenor, nor a growling ball of anger. Boghtdrincker borders on the rare voice type of contrabass, at times touching an E1. (For non-music types, that’s an extremely low note – when it is written in operas, often all other music stops to allow that note to be heard – because, to produce it at all, it tends to be very quiet. It takes a special talent and years of training to sing this low – and to do so and maintain tone is actually harder than singing up high). Splintervuyscht is a higher, more lyric baritone with a voice reminiscent of Galaxy chocolate. (Can we get a sponsor?) He tends to carry the melodies clearly and strongly, while Boghtdrincker stays down in the dungeons, providing a rumbling presence, like a dragon that is starting to awake. The harmonies created by the dual vocals are interesting and unusual – they haven’t stuck to the easy (or expected) thirds, fifths or octaves. Rather, they’ve chosen intervals which feel tribal – coinciding with their image and the ancient Germanic mythology that inspires their music. At times, their chosen harmonies evoke a semblance of Gregorian chants – and on occasion, the melodies don’t go quite where you might expect them to, adding interest and surprise. Both men are skilled musicians, alternating between shared harmonised vocals and trading countermelodies. This unusual shared frontmanship is one of several elements that sets Heidevolk apart from other metal bands.
Guitarists Reamon Bomenbreker and Kevin Vruchtbaard have a majestic stage presence that is, at times, theatrical without being over-the-top or distracting from the frontmen. Both men are comfortably at ease onstage and their enjoyment of playing comes over to the audience, encouraging the already frenetic moshing, headbanging and fist-pumping that was happening down front. Lightning-fast rhythm sections are expertly executed and include a complexity that sits the music perhaps across the street and up the road from power metal. Dagger-sharp tremolo picking and cantering rhythms that bolt forward juxtapose with short, melodic runs that keep pushing the songs forward and break up longer riffs. Longer lead sections often include intricate and technical compositions, occasionally twinned and harmonised with more synchronisation than the 2012 Olympic Synchronised Swimming team. Slower solos melt more faces than a homicidal, telekinetic pyromaniac and soar above the rest of the music. Throughout the set, there is a sense that the guitars are creating their own story – separate to but in conjunction with the stories being told by the vocals and the lyrics.
Bassist Rowan Roodbaert could easily get lost between the complexity of the dual vocals and dual guitars. However – he makes sure this doesn’t happen. Roodbaert’s bass does more than keep the root notes – or keep the time. At times it walks up the guitars’ tremolo-picked chords, giving a melodic focal point for the audience – and interest. At other times, it provides a counterpoint, responding to the guitarists’ riffs. Still at other times, Roodbaert’s bass has its own melody – and indeed during several points in the gig, it is clear that the guitars have taken over the rhythm duties and Roodbaert moves to take a leading role. This particularly works with the composition of the band – since the vocals are so low, having the bass as a lead instrument is effective: it is in the same aural range and doesn’t have as much to cut through as it might in a band made up with a different balance. He capably harmonises with the guitars at some points and consistently keeps the songs driving forward. Roodbaert is the quintessential, flexible bassist – able to master all trades. Drummer Joost den Vellenknotscher seems like he must be a fun guy – possibly the joker of the band, simply judging by his facial expressions and antics onstage (e.g. stick spinning – and the inexplicable blue balloon tied to his kit). However, the theatrics don’t detract from his performance, which was impeccable. He manages time changes and extra bars that – well, if the tremolo picked rhythm guitar sections are across the street from power metal, this drumming is sitting on prog’s front porch. Occasional spurts of almost thrash-quick pounding show that Vellenknotscher isn’t above ‘hitting things’ (to quote Terry Pratchett). Meanwhile, his finesse with other, more intricate sections prove his pendulum-like (the clock part, not the band) sense of timing, which keeps the whole performance on track, on tempo and on time.
Overall, judging by the crowd reaction – and the cries for more encores – Heidevolk was well and truly overdue for a headline slot in the UK. They more than lived up to the hype they generated. Graciously thanking the support bands, organiser, backstage crew and the crowd, they also proved themselves to be gracious and modest. As the lights came back up after their set and dazed metalheads started to find their ways resignedly to the doors, it was clear that tonight the crowd had witnessed something pretty folkin’ special [Ed – NO MORE PUNS! PLEASE!]. [5/5]
Photography by James David Brough.