warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Paganfest Pillages Hollywood With Folk Metal

Jeremy Fuster |
April 5, 2013 | 1:47 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Tyr rocks the House of Blues Sunset during the Paganfest Tour (Courtesy of Andrew Molina)
Tyr rocks the House of Blues Sunset during the Paganfest Tour (Courtesy of Andrew Molina)
23 winters ago, in a distant land known as Newcastle, England, a quartet of metal musicians decided to create something completely different from the relentless brutality of the thrash metal movement that had consumed the world.  

So they wrote up ten songs, brought in some session musicians to play piccolo and fiddle, made some offerings to some trees, and named themselves Skyclad.

One song on their debut album, "The Widdershins Jig," earned critical acclaim from the metal community. Skyclad had found a way to write a song where the guitars trade off melodies with lively folk instruments you would be more likely to hear at a cultural festival than a heavy metal show in East London.  

It was a whole new frontier of music, with seemingly incompatible instruments blending together seamlessly without overpowering each other.  

The result? Metal you can dance to! GASP! From Skyclad and "The Widdershins Jig" came a whole new movement filled with experimentation, storytelling, and national pride known as folk metal.

Fusion genres are a regular occurrence in any area of music, but few have become as diverse or international as folk metal, as musicians around the world have taken the history, legends, and traditional music of their homelands and turned them into head banging musical monstrosities that proudly extoll cultural heritage while simultaneously blowing out the eardrums of anyone within a two mile radius.

In the 1990s, the folk metal movement saw the rise of bands that honor the Inca Empire, invoke the aid of the Celtic horned god Cernunnos, and weave tales of three angels representing the Abrahamic religions.  

But there's no part of the world that has embraced folk metal more than Scandinavia. At the turn of the century, a wave of folk metal bands exploded out of Finland, and its neighbors quickly followed suit. As a result, folk metal became synonymous with tales of vikings, sword fights, and pagan myths often told in Germanic and Scandinavian languages, so much in fact that some bands in the region have referred to themselves as "pagan metal" and have dedicated their music to carrying on the oral traditions of their ancestors.

As folk metal grew, a small but hardcore following began to grow in North America, and in 2010, a touring festival was created to bring the best folk metal from the Baltic lands to those loyal Yanks that have held the heathen hammer high after all these years.

It's called Paganfest, and it rocked the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip on Tuesday night. Five excellent bands took the stage and provided their own special take on folk metal, including the kings of the genre, Ensiferum, who are supporting their new album "Unsung Heroes."

First up was Helsott, a band that demonstrates the wide appeal of folk metal, because they come not from Europe, but from right here in Southern California. Paganfest is the biggest tour for this batch of new blood, and they had a strong group of loyal fans in the hometown crowd to see them off before they begin their journey across the nation.  

It's easy to see how Helsott is influenced by Ensiferum, as they combine brutal guitar melodies with soft choirs and soaring keyboards, with vocalist Eric Dow alternating between raspy black metal screaming and intense death metal roaring. Dow was somewhat inconsistent on the mic that night, but strong guitar work from his brother Mark and Tristan Nightingale kept the show going strong.

The band has released an EP, "Folkvangr," and hopefully they will ride the momentum of this tour to a full album release.

Then things got really weird with the next band, Trollfest. This band of oddballs came out on the stage dressed in bumblebee outfits and smeared with face paint.

All of their songs are written in Trollsprak, a language they made up with words such as "Illantergesteignungh". As it turned out, the language doesn't matter because the vocals were completely incomprehensible. In fact, that pretty much describes their entire act.

All I could do was stand there and watch as these bee-men pranced all over the stage, serenaded the crowd with saxophones and accordions, and told some story about a bee who produces honey for mead that's chugged by trolls and EAAAUUUGGGHHWHATISTHISIDONTEVEN.

The point is, Trollfest's music is definitely not for everyone. It's the epitome of nonsense, but it's nonsense that has been polished to a brilliant shine. Regardless, their live act is incredibly fun, with the band encouraging the crowd to engage in circle pits and dog barks.

Trollfest's antics and Helsott's fresh-faced enthusiasm were the perfect way to set the tone for the heavy-hitters, starting with the underground Dutch sensation, Heidevolk.

Heidevolk is a band that loves to sing about the wonders of their home province of Gelderland, whether it's through a quiet acoustic folk melody or through skull-crushing guitar riffs. Either way, their two vocalists, Joris Boghtdrincker and Mark Splintervuyscht, give their songs a resonant might with bass vocals as glorious as their long surnames.

Heidevolk were by far the best act of the night, bringing a studio-quality sound to the show and never missing a single note. Unfortunately, that high quality meant that most of their songs were not audience-friendly, as their attempts to get the crowd to sing the opening chant from their hit song "Saksenland" were met with drunk caterwauling.

Heidevolk must have been aware of that, as they ended their set with the song "Vulgaris Magistralis," a little ditty about a caveman who rides a mammoth chanting "A-ROO! A-ROO! A-ROO!". Perfect song for a crowd that had a few beers in the tank by this point.

Band number four was Tyr, a quartet from the Faroe Islands. Of all the bands that took the stage, Tyr was by far the most pagan of the lot. All of their songs use melodies and/or pagan tales that have been handed down by oral tradition. They aim to be the ultimate ambassadors of pagan culture, as seen by their biggest hit song, "Hold The Heathen Hammer High."  

Like anything rooted in oral tradition, Tyr's music is meant to be heard in person rather than through recording. While the guitar solos by frontmen Heri Joensen and Terji Skibenaes were not up to par, every song performed had a crushing bass and pounding rhythm that cannot be replicated in a studio. By the end of the set, Tyr had sent the mosh pit into a total frenzy. If they had been the final act, it would have been enough to make this a great show.

But no, the best was yet to come. A few minutes after 11 PM, the kilt-wearing overlords of folk metal took the stage. This was Ensiferum, a band that has released five critically-acclaimed albums and have yet to take a misstep. Even some metalheads who think folk metal is lame and gimmicky—and who shall be struck down with the might of Mjolnir—agree that this is a band worth following.

Their songs range from riff-heavy warrior anthems like "Iron" and "In My Sword I Trust" to roaring symphonic epics like "From Afar" and "The Longest Journey." The best moment of Ensiferum's set came when the band decided to cut loose and play with some disco bass lines. That was the signal for one of their highest-charting songs, "One More Magic Potion." With bouncing rhythms, flute melodies, and black metal chants, it's one of Ensiferum's most fun songs and a mainstay on their setlists.   

Paganfest has become one of the biggest must-see shows on the North American metal concert calendar, bringing only the best folk metal Europe has to offer. The only flaw this show has is the limited set time each band gets.

Ensiferum was forced to cut several of their popular hits from their setlist, and it looks Heidevolk will unable to use their first stateside tour to play some of the slower songs that demonstrate their versatility.

Still, if you have even a remote interest in folk metal and live near one of the upcoming shows in Canada or the Northeast, you owe it to yourself to go out and see these bands. 

Read more of NT's show reviews here.

Reach Staff Reporter Jeremy Fuster HERE or follow him on Twitter.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.