This was the first stop of Russian folk metal band Arkona's headline world tour. I was super excited to see them play a whole set. We've seen them open for bigger folk metal acts, but their set has always been short and rushed. Not only that, but since they were playing at Cafe 611, a tiny venue with a stage barely raised off the floor and barely big enough to hold a band, I knew we would be up close and personal with the band - especially Masha, the singer, who is one of my metal idols.
There was a pretty strong line-up of local bands warming up the crowd - the downside to that being that the show ran about an hour late, and so an already late start time for Arkona was pushed back to about midnight. We planned to get there sometime during Vitality's set in order to make sure to see Burning Shadows, but when we arrived sometime after 8, the first band was just going on >.<
The set-up was also interesting, because Arkona's drum kit had already been set up and was taking up about half the stage, which meant that for most of the opening bands, their drum kit took up the other half of the stage, the guitarists stood on the sides, and the singer was on the floor with the crowd - sometimes in the crowd. In fact, the first band had all their equipment set up right on the floor.
The first band was Divine Conspiracy, a three piece outfit. I heard people saying that it was their first show, and I believe the singer backed up when I talked to him later. Just as we came in, they launched into something very punk rock sounding. Then they did a System of a Down cover, which I didn't really listen to. I believe their third song was an original, and it sounded pretty energetic, although I couldn't hear much other than the bass. When I could hear it, the lead guitar (played by the singer) sounded pretty great. They ended with a Slayer-paced cover of Pantera's "Fucking Hostile"; the singer/guitarist's speedy playing was a little more audible in this song. He definitely has skills, but they need to work on their sound mixing.
Next was Vitality, whom I had somehow mentally confused with Vital Remains. Once they took the stage, though, it was immediately clear that they look and sound completely different from that band. As soon as they launched into fast melodic riffs and aggressive vocals alternating between a high rasp and guttural growl, I wondered how come I never heard of them before. I was also amazed at the low growls emerging from the rather diminutive and normal-looking singer - although I really should know better than to judge by appearances! S kept comparing them to Black Dahlia Murder, and I can see the comparison in terms of style, but their pace was more moderate than BDM's frenzy. They only played three songs. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of them.
Then came Burning Shadows, a power metal band that I've been trying to see for years. We always seemed to arrive too late to shows they were playing, but this time we finally made it. They started off with something from their latest album, Gather Darkness - I think it may have been "A New Dark Age." They played three songs total, and they all seemed rather long. When listening to the album Gather Darkness, I found the vocals a bit overly pompous, but this effect was diminished in the live setting, and they had some headbang-inspiring thundering power metal bridges. There was a headbanging section on the left side of the floor that was pretty into their music; I might have been up there too if I hadn't been hanging out with people. They exceeded my expectations, so I hope it's not years before I see them again.
After that was Yesterday's Saints, another band we've been trying to see for a while. During their set, we moved to the floor and I tried out wearing earplugs, since S insisted I would need them if I wanted to go up close for Arkona. The earplugs were a terrible experience - as I expected, everything sounded muffled, the singer's voice sounded distant, the bass was just a blur of low noise and I couldn't hear the guitar at all. By the end of the set I decided I wasn't going to waste my time not hearing the music and took them out. Even without earplugs, though, the bass and guitar sounded like a confused roar, and the singer's vocals were so low, he might as well have been singing without a mic. I heard him complaining about the sound afterward and I don't blame him. Fortunately he had a powerful voice, both for growls and clean vocals, so I was able to hear him, but the vocals didn't quite have the bad-ass or soaring effect, respectively, that they would have if the volume matched the instruments. They played three songs total, including a new song that the singer warned might not be quite polished, but at the least it didn't sound any worse than the rest of the set. The singer got into the crowd a couple times, and even tried to start a pit at one point, but people didn't seem to be having it. It was kind of a disappointing experience with the earplugs and the sound issues, since it seemed like some cool heavy stuff was going on. I guess we have to continue our quest and try to see Yesterday's Saints again, without sound problems.
The last local band was Fallen Martyr, which, ironically in contrast to the previous two elusive bands, is a band that I have seen several times and have never been able to get into. This time, though, I was actually able to enjoy their set a little. I'm not sure if it was that I got drunk during their set, that I'm finally getting used to the agonized vocals or that said vocals were being halfway drowned out by the guitars (which, by the way, are excellent and are Fallen Martyr's saving grace). I think they played four songs; the first was "Soul Left Bare" (whose chorus is among the more bearable of their songs and always makes me think of Paradise Lost's "Faith Divides Us...Death Unites Us" just because of the lyrics) and the last was "Body of Light" (whose repetition of the words "I rise" led me to troll S with talk of the Batman).
During Fallen Martyr's set, a guy came up to me and asked me, in all seriousness, if I was Masha and said I looked just like her. Best compliment I've ever gotten :D \m/
And then at last Arkona. As soon as the sweeping intro started, I totally forgot the lateness of the hour. I had worried that the folk instruments or melodies might be drowned out on Cafe 611's sound system, which is usually tuned to rumble as though made for bass-heavy death metal bands, but in fact they sounded perfectly clear, at least from the center of the floor, front to back. I spent some time getting as close to the stage (and Masha) as possible, but much more starting mosh pits and jigs. There was a core of three or four guys and three other girls who could be relied on to get moving when the music got fast or polka-y. Most of the crowd pressed up to the front of the floor, leaving the pit in the back; I never did get all the way up to front like I hoped.
They started off fast and heavy with "Arkaim" and I couldn't resist pushing a friend around and starting a pit. That song has some great headbanging grooves, too, and Masha got everyone clapping for the more melodic parts. While the crowd wasn't the loudest, they were very willing to clap, fistpump and shout "Hey!" (and the band had us doing a lot of all three, so much my arms are still sore) and the crowd even sang along and jumped along with the band for some parts. The floor was about half full, but people were packed pretty tightly up at the front. The sound was perhaps not quite as rich as their recent live album Decade of Glory with its backing choir and orchestra, but this was a tiny venue in Frederick after all. The guitars were heavy, thundering in the fast parts; the bagpipes and recorder melodies floated over them nice and clear; and Masha's vocals were commanding or naturally beautiful, depending on the circumstance. It is pretty amazing how the band can go from flowing folk singing and wind melodies to black-metal-like furious guitars and drums and dark, harsh vocals; I think the variety, along with the earthy feel of the folk parts and the intensity of the harsh parts, is one of the reasons I like Arkona so much. They played most of the "classics" people would expect like "Goi, Rode Goi," "Slavsia, Rus," "Arkona," "Yarilo," and "Stenka na Stenku" as well as "Maslenitsa," "Po Syroi Zemle," and "Slovo," with "Rus" and "Kupala i Kostroma" as the encore, and also some other songs I can't name off the top of my head. (Someone has posted a setlist.) About two thirds through the set, the rest of band took a break for a bagpipe solo. As at Paganfest last year, Masha called for a wall of death for "Stenka na Stenku"; unlike at Paganfest, this time she had time to make herself understood and so it actually happened. Even though I said beforehand that I didn't think I could orchestrate a wall of death, I did have to goad people to line up for it, and then finally took part in my first honest to god wall of death. A lot of people got into and fell down in the crazy pit right after that. I hope we did Masha proud :P
Masha was getting pretty pink by the end of the set, and on the last song ("Kupala i Kostroma") she sounded a bit weak - that was probably the only weak point in the whole set. It's got to be difficult performing under those lights in furs. I was a tiny bit disappointed that they didn't play "Pokrovy Nebesnogo Startsa" (a great moshing song) or "Vyidu ya na Volushku" (which has a lovely folksy melody) but I had such a great time with the songs they did play, I could hardly complain about missing songs. Actually, it seems like all the songs they played are on their Decade of Glory live album, which would make sense, if they consider those songs their "hits."
I realized it was a long time since the last folk metal show - even this year's Paganfest doesn't really count, since most of the bands were more epic-riff Viking metal rather than folk metal chock full of folk instruments and melodies - so it was a while since I'd experienced a good folk pit. Arkona was an awesome cure to that! The band put on a great show, and the crowd made it really fun too. Like the last show at Cafe 611, the local line-up was also solid, keeping me well entertained till the headliner finally came on. Now, I just wish I wasn't operating on 3 hours of sleep, still..
Next show: Next Monday - Finntroll, Blackguard, Metsatöll and more awesome locals! Another chance at Yesterday's Saints, as well as North Carolina vikings Aether Realm and a new folk metal band from Maryland, Sekengard.