It's likely that I'm a poser. We'll get that out right now. Because for me, half of the joy of metal is the theatre. Maybe more than half. On any Saturday night, I'm infinitely more likely to reach for my dogeared copy of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces over Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky, but if you ask me which band I'd rather watch perform, you know I'm just going to disappoint The Attractions. Am I a true fan of metal, who knows, but it is certain that I wouldn't miss the spectacle of Finland's Korpiklaani for the world.
Doors opened at 6pm, allowing the small queue quick entrance into the club. For the next three hours fans would trickle in at various flow levels. Most would miss the opener due to the band's assigned 6:15 start time. They may have just missed the best band of the night.
Stonehaven is a local five-piece folk metal band. Do I need to back up already? In the world of countless metal subgenres, "folk metal" is often used interchangeably with "Viking metal" or "pagan metal." Philosophy, and to a lesser extent, the band's lyrical content influence which label a band may prefer, or simply be saddled with. All of the genres grew out of "black metal" which (and this is up for some debate among the historical revisionists) probably grew out of "death metal." We won't bother backing up any further than that. Folk metal, as the name implies, owes a debt (and sometimes a writing credit) to the sing-song melodies of largely Norse and Celtic medieval sagas and drinking songs. Many folk metal bands incorporate traditional instruments as part of their sound. Stonehaven is not one of those bands, however, leaving them firmly rooted in the black metal tradition augmented by soaring Viking melodies.
Stonehaven takes their Norse tradition seriously, with members even attending Norse festivals in costume – a sort of pre-Renaissance fair I suppose. It's these costumes that first attracted my attention. Lavishly decorated tunics, heavy furs, and heavier mail all augment the band members' long beards and longer hair. Sooty and smeared makeup darkens eyes and pales faces, while beards and hair are greyed, setting the scene that these warriors have not seen home in a very long time. Aside from the modern footwear, the five members of the band are History Channel-convincing, and clearly devoted to the visual presentation of their band.
Musically, Stonehaven have found the perfect mix of double bass brutality and epic melody. Guitarists Nick VanWalleghem and Caleb May eschew speed and technical leads, but instead focus on riffs that push melody forward. Stephen Holdeman looks huge in his furs and leather armour, and his growled vocals are just as large. There's anguish in his face, in his vocals, and (I'm told) in his lyrics as well. Of course, despite being sung in English, his lyrics are completely unintelligible. While the band's short 30-minute set allowed little time for banter, what was said was roared, leaving the small audience with only "We are Stonehaven" in the way of conversation. But who needs words when Holdeman lifts his microphone stand like a sword to the heavens, or grasps it with two hands spearing its knife-tipped end toward the crowd. Is there folk metal in the Midwest? Hell yes.
At 7:00, with many ticket holders still arriving, Estonia's Metsatoll took the stage. This quartet is led by vocalist/guitarist Rabapagan – a giant man whose broad smile and sweet English accent painted him as more Teddy than grizzly. His guitar work is similarly sweet, never straying far from melodic leads that echo his own vocals, or harmonise expertly with the various pipes and whistles played by Varulven. Besides an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Varulven has a gloriously deep voice that accents the marvellous vowel sounds that only Estonian has. In fact, it was his traditional Estonian runo songs that earned the greatest response of the set – effectively turning a crowd of 20-something Americans wearing Burzum teeshirts into instant ethnomusicologists. Impressive.
But this wasn't a recital, and despite the band's past work with the Estonian National Male Choir (really), Metsatoll is still a metal band, and its rhythm section was anxious to prove that point. The rattling five-string bass of KuriRaivo and persistent cymbal-heavy percussion of drummer Marko Atso, quickly swept away the folk revival niceties, revealing a brutal speedy core that Rabapagan and Varulven bashed along with. While the audience called out for more, ultimately the band were only given a disappointingly short 30 minutes. For the rest of the night a steady stream of fans would visit Varulven while he worked the band's merchandise table, many posing for photos, collecting autographs, and examining (if not actually buying) the band's ornately packaged CDs. With a catalogue of releases dating back to the band's 1999 demo I didn't know where to start, but if you have suggestions, I'm all ears.
Throughout the night, the Granada exhibited tidal effects as the smokers would all rush out as one band ended, and then come crashing back in fifteen minutes later as the next band began. This was great news for fans wishing to press forward for their favourite acts, and based on the crush that arrived for Tyr, the band was definitely a band people had come to see.
Tyr frontman Heri Joensen has publicly stated his dislike of the labels and classifications applied to his band, but since he isn't here to hurt me, it's safe to say Tyr is a Viking metal band that digs deep into the history of its native Faroe Islands, mining its folk melodies and epic tales. And while that may tell you which tour Tyr will be included on, or who they might sell t-shirts too, in practice Tyr's music is an amalgam of their Viking roots, by-the-book power metal leads, unfortunate hair metal ballads, complicated progressive rock structures, and street punk swagger. In this way the band is fearless.
As one might now expect, the four members of Tyr do not adhere to our romantic notion of what a Viking should look like. This is particularly true of the two thin and shirtless guitarists, although the lack of full beards amongst the entire band is actually jarring. Thankfully bassist Gunnar Thomsen is a large man with a flowing mane, as he balances out Skibenaes's decidedly hair metal aura. With a recently shaved mohawk (again thumbing his nose at expectations), a torso covered in tattoos, and tight low-rise pants, Skibenaes could just as easily be on tour with Skid Row or LA Guns. So how is this Viking metal? The vocal harmonies.
Joensen's voice is unexpectedly full and round. It belts out calls to war and retells the stories of glorious battles, urging others to raise their mugs and voices. First Thomsen joins in, then Skibanaes, creating tight three-part harmonies that echo over the drumming cadence, seven-string guitars and a six-string bass. It was this sound, combined with several epic tracks from 2009's By the Light of the Northern Star (notably "Hold the Heathen Hammer High" and "By the Sword in My Hand") that dominated the final third of the band's 50-minute set. Fists pumped as the audience sang along with the English-language lyrics and the monstrous gang choruses. This is what everyone came for.
Again the smoking tide went out and came back as the stage was reset for Finland's Moonsorrow. The large Tyr backdrop which hung (sometimes precariously) behind all of the opening bands was replaced with a much larger Moonsorrow banner. At 8:45 the stage was bathed in deep red light, and the five members of the band took the stage.
Whether folk or pagan metal, it was immediately obvious that Moonsorrow holds its black metal roots very dear. Frontman, vocalist, and bassist Ville Sorvali has a deep growl that reverberates through the band's dark and atmospheric music. Guitarists Janne Perttila (a touring member that stands in for co-founder Henri Sorvali who prefers not to tour) and Mitja Harvilahti solo constantly, towing a fine line between technical metal wizardry, and emotive folk melody. Drummer Marko Tarvonen plays no frills death metal with punishing waves of blast beats. This witches brew is held together by the atmospheric keyboards of Markus Euren.
As with Tyr, shirts are optional in Moonsorrow. Their absence, however, is not about displaying taut abs (there aren't any), but rather an effort to showcase the "blood" dripping from the heads of its members. Forsaking the traditional black metal corpse paint, Moonsorrow has opted for dripping blood that (depending on how it is applied) either makes its wearer appear as evil returned from the dead (Harvilahti) or as a dazed victim of a recent car crash (nearly everyone else). The shaven head of Perttila looked particularly disturbing with the make up, and something about his naturally sunken face and angular cheek bones was memorably unsettling. You'd cross the street if he was stumbling through your neighbourhood.
During the band's set, the audience reached its numerical peak, with scrawny boys flitting about a large empty pit thirty feet from the stage, pushing each other awkwardly, falling clumsily, and rushing to help one another up as if they had to clean up the mess before mom got home. The mock aggression was only echoed by Sorvali whose banter was much too polite to be belligerently motiving: "Will you please make some fucking noise?" he asked, hopefully.
Repeating the earlier pattern, the large Moonsorrow banner was replaced with a larger, more vivid, and more detailed Korpiklaani backdrop, in preparation for the headliner's set. Even though the band would take the stage at a respectable 10:10, the all-ages audience had already begun to thin out, begrudgingly preparing for school the next morning. But while the club may have held less people, the entire audience came forward for Korpiklaani, packing the area in front of the stage tighter than it had been all evening. Thankfully there was no longer a need for the expansive mosh pit created during Moonsorrow's set.
For those interested in playing the sub-genre game, things begin to fall apart with Korpiklaani. The band is both simultaneously the most folk metal of all folk metal bands, and yet, it has transcended the genre to become something entirely new. This band wasn't born from black metal, but instead it can be traced back to a band playing Sami folk songs for diners at a traditional Finnish restaurant. There are no costumes. There is no corpse paint. Frontman Jonne Jarvela isn't a marauding Viking; he's a smiling, happy, hippie of a man that skips merrily across the stage, tossing his long blonde dreadlocks in time with the band's bounding rhythms. While Stonehaven attempts to recall "the horrors of old world Europe: atrocity, murder, and Norse Heathenism," Korpiklaani is throwing a party and they want you to dance and drink – especially to drink.
The face of Korpiklaani (and its only consistent member) is Jarvela, and it's his ebullient stage presence and broken English that captures the audience's attention. Despite a broken finger and some form of immobilizing cast that kept him from playing guitar, Jarvela made sure the audience (particularly the screaming teens swooning in the front row) was shown a good time. There were awkward moments when he wasn't always sure what – or why – the audience was screaming back at him, but those pauses were quickly gobbled up by the start of another song.
While Jarvela unquestionably fronts the band, its musical identity is a much more collaborative effort. There could be no metal without Cane's guitar or Matson's drums, but similarly there could be no folk without the accordion of Juho Kauppinen or Tuomas Rounakari's violin. Adorable, bearded, gnome of a bassist Jarkko Aaltonen splits the difference, providing a fingered bounding bass line that adds as much bouncing brogue as it does fierce propulsion. But unlike in other metal genres, Cane's guitar leads and Matson's beats are largely immaterial when describing the band's sound. Accordion and violin are the stars of Korpiklaani as they inspire movement. And movement defines this band.
From the first note played, the band had the entire club jumping, dancing reels with strangers, and (in several cases) attempting to give Michael Flatley a run for his money. There were songs about beer, about vodka, and even about tequila (which the band seemed to have enjoyed learning about on their previous tours of the Americas). The recurring lyrical content was matched by a musical repetition that left me cold, but the dancers in high spirits. Quickly this ceased to be a folk metal show, instead turning into a Gogol Bordello performance on stage at Bonnaroo. And that's when I lost my mind.
I thought I had my head around the folk metal genre – its origins, its fans, its signatures – but obviously I hadn't. Korpiklaani was both the most fascinating band of the night, and yet the least enjoyable. I had come for the spectacle of Korpiklaani, but had no idea what that might be. The reality was much less theatrical than I had imagined, but rather a decidedly earthy and organic experience. One that spoke to the audience, but not to me.
Ultimately the band would play an hour set, return for a fifteen minute encore, then exit the stage just before 11:30. When the applause stopped, I watched the audience rush to the well-stocked Korpiklaani merchandise tables, while I followed the equally excited smokers toward the theatre doors. On the way out I spied the members of Stonehaven in their street clothes; they didn't look like marauding Vikings, just geeky metal dudes. And I thought about the theatre of metal, and how much more fun it is than the reality of Levis, tennis shoes, and day jobs. I'm not sure if that precludes me from being a true fan of metal, or if that earns me my membership. Either way, you'll be sure to see me the next time the Nordic Hordes amass with their corpse paint, spiked gauntlets, and bagpipes.