Warhorns: Day Two @ The Duchess, York

Skyforger, Wolfchant and more
The Duchess, York
22nd September 2012

Much to my regret, I didn’t make the first day of Warhorns Festival. However, on Saturday I was in York bright and early, determined to make up for lost time. Since the gig wound up starting around half an hour late anyway, I managed to get an excellent barrier vantage point for what turned out to be a unique opening performance, courtesy of two one-man bands that had joined forces and found some session musicians just for the occasion. England’s Aloeswood, the project of Ravenage‘s Danny “Dagstyrr” Downing, had teamed with North Carolina’s Desiderium (whose mastermind Michael Rumple had flown himself in at frightening expense to be here) for a one-off joint show that I felt privileged to witness, since apparently Aloeswood at least never intend to play live again.

Which is a great shame, because their half of the set was stunning. Aloeswood‘s sound is on the more reflective, moody side of the pagan metal style, defined by unhurried rhythms and flowing, lyrical guitars, filled with texture and interleaved melodies. While it’s always difficult to sing someone else’s material, Michael threw himself into the vocal parts with a will and his voice fitted well, leaving Danny free to give all his attention to his guitar – indeed, one highlight of the ensuing performance may well pass into metal myth. When during new track Winter Michael handed Danny a small metal spanner, we were all a bit confused. When Danny promptly applied the spanner to his strings, producing an absolutely amazing eBow-esque lead break that went on for several minutes, our jaws dropped in awe.

And then, after three tracks, Michael threw off his shirt, swapped places with Danny and announced “We’re now a completely different band!” Enter Desiderium, purveyors of an ambient-tinged, atmospheric black metal sound that followed surprisingly smoothly from Aloeswood‘s songs. Sadly it was obvious at once that this material had been less rehearsed (unsurprisingly, given the problem of the North Atlantic being in the way of any prior gatherings) but even so, the songs still came through and the passion that Michael threw into his performance was inspiring to see. I also had the pleasure of briefly meeting him and shaking his hand at the end of the set, and for my pains was gifted a copy of Desiderium‘s first album An Image of Solitude on limited edition cassette(!) Thank you Michael, if you read this, I was genuinely thrilled by that.

The challenge of following this demented double-bill went to Scotland’s Morlich, who are an alarmingly young-looking collective peddling a melodic folk/black metal sound that promises a great deal of potential just waiting to be fulfilled. While they’re a little short on stage presence that’s a skill that tends to come with experience, and their guitarist Corvus possesses a real gift for conveying emotion in his solos. Definitely ones to watch – and a source of more free music, as they were giving away demo CDs for their new album at the end. Thanks lads, can’t wait to hear the final version!

Third up were Shallow Intentions; whose set I got completely caught up in and really enjoyed, as they play an accessible brand of fast, rattling, danceable viking metal – complete with costumes and warpaint – that’s tailor-made for enthusiastic headbanging and horn-throwing. Their technical excellence wasn’t the best, unfortunately, but their charisma and energy carried them across a few minor missteps without too much trouble and they got a warm response from a cheerful crowd. A fine, entertaining performance with no pretensions.

Following this were Ireland’s Celtachor, who were the only band of the day who really didn’t work for me. Part of this was because their already aggressive sound was being mangled by the PA into a nigh-impenetrable wall of noise and I was having trouble actually hearing the songs, but given that, their frontman’s Celtic berserker routine proved more of a hindrance than a help. His glaring and exhortations were so vigorous that he really seemed at times like he hated every single one of us, and the intimidation factor that resulted wasn’t helping my attempts to focus on the music and pick out what was going on. Eventually, half deaf and not much the wiser, I admitted defeat and retreated to the back to catch my breath.

However, next after Celtachor were one of the main reasons I was here in the first place: Ravenage, the band of Warhorns organiser Glyn “The Heralder”. And truly, they did not disappoint me. With a newly energised lineup, having recently replaced their bassist and got keyboardist Windrider back after a lengthy hiatus while he toured with Alestorm, they opened up with all dials set to eleven and never slowed down for a second. Thankfully the PA issues that had afflicted Celtachor seemed to have disappeared, and they blasted unhindered through such anthems as Viking Dream, Northbound Part I, and the inevitable More Beer, and also finally gave us Northbound Part II which we’ve all been waiting for ever since Part I came out. The best thing about the set for me, though, was finally seeing them with Windrider, as he’s been absent at both previous Ravenage shows I’ve seen (no disrespect of course to the legendary Articus, who’s been filling in!); watching him play his heart out, eyes closed and hair flying, was beautiful to see, and it was immediately clear how much his presence adds to their performance. A truly triumphant return to form for one of the best rising bands in English metal.

Indeed, Ravenage effectively headlined the British Isles section of the night, since the top tier of the bill had been reserved for those bands who’d come a good deal further to play. First came Belgium’s Angeli di Pietra – defining themselves as “powerfolk” and with no fewer than seven members including both male and female dedicated vocalists, they won the crowd over in the space of about five seconds flat with their charm and energy. While their chosen genre tag is certainly apt, they never let the power metal side of their sound get over the top and the results were gloriously melodic while still heavy enough to keep the Warhorns crowd entertained. Despite the number of people they were squeezing onto the Duchess’s crowded stage they even managed to move around and make some use of the space, which also impressed me. And I’ve seldom seen a band so visibly overwhelmed by a crowd’s welcome for them – summed up when vocalist Guy was teaching us the words to the singalong for Onwards to Asgard, and after a single round of “Onwards-” “-TO ASGARD!” shook his head in amazement and declared “That was perfect, let’s go!” An equally unanimous and correct response greeted the demand “Whom among you is the one they call Spartacus?”, leading into a track called, of course, “I Am Spartacus”, and occasioning plenty of laughter and cheering in the process. Fun, heartwarming and a welcome breath of fresh air, I’d be delighted to see this band again if they return to our shores.

Equally excellent, though requiring a swift change of mental gears, were Germany’s Wolfchant. I wondered what was up when the entire front section of the stage was cleared of all but a single micstand, but when Wolfchant came crashing on, all became clear. Their thunderous, no-frills, pagan Metal-with-a-capital-M sound is huge and so are they, even the smallest and slightest of the band having a physique that wouldn’t disgrace a pro wrestler. Like Angeli Di Pietra they have two dedicated vocalists, in this case both male; I’d consider that excessive in most bands, but Lokhi and Nortwin are an amazing team, throwing the vocal lines to each other with split-second synchronisation and performing as a seamless double act to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Even a cover of Grave Digger’s Rebellion didn’t slow things down, overclocked until it sounded perfectly in place. Definitely the wildest it got all night, the air dripping with testosterone, fury and pagan pride, the front rows going berserk (including me) and the whole thing culminating in a near riot both onstage and off when what seemed like half the performing presence at Warhorns were invited onstage for a storming performance of Never Too Drunk. If you ever get the chance to see this band live, don’t miss it; the experience is a treat.

Physically demanding as Wolfchant‘s set was, I’d hardly got my breath back by the time Skyforger came on. Foolishly I’d abandoned my barrier spot between bands and discovered I couldn’t get it back, as every Latvian fan present (of whom there were an impressive number) had charged down to the front while I was gone. So I saw Skyforger from three rows back, which was fine. What might have been less fine was the fact that they’ve recently lost their folk instrumentalist, meaning that the Skyforger you get onstage nowadays is doing with guitars everything that used to be done with traditional instruments; but as it worked out, I was delighted to realise that with the folk gloss partially lifted from their powerful, epic sound, lurking underneath is a huge helping of classic eighties metal influences ranging from Slayer to Iron Maiden. They sounded flawless, and you would never have known they hadn’t been playing that way for their whole career. Their stage presentation is inspirational, too – richly dressed in medieval-style costume, frontman Pēteris resplendent in his black and scarlet, they dominated the stage with the confidence and presence of veterans, needing no theatrics to support them.

And apparently, there’s crowds, there’s partisan crowds, and then there’s Skyforger fans. The front rows were lapping it up with an obsessive devotion, and there was even a large Latvian flag making the rounds a row or two back. The acclaim that greeted tracks like the beautiful Migla Migla, Rasa Rasa was deafening, and to hear a crowd singing along in flawless Latvian in an English venue made me proud to call myself a fan of this amazing, borderless music that we call heavy metal. Skyforger and their fans truly exemplified the spirit of the Warhorns Festival, and I can’t praise them enough. A perfect end to a perfect night.

So in closing, I’d just like to extend all thanks and honour to Glyn and Marc who organised this amazing event, and I can’t wait for the next gig under the Warhorns banner.

Kit Rathenar [Destructive Music]

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One Response to “Warhorns: Day Two @ The Duchess, York”

  1. CeltSteve Says:

    I can assure everyone i don’t hate anyone who supports or comes to see my band what a strange thing to say. Apologies to anyone who thought so.
    Stephen Roche
    Celtachor

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