For me, attending a three day music festival (organized by Adam Collins-Torruella of Pesanta Urfolk) in the Tahoe National Forest Desolation Wilderness has got to be the perfect way to celebrate the Autumn Equinox. For awhile, I waffled on getting a ticket because schedules conspired to make this a solo journey, not to mention the fact that I hadn’t heard a good number of the bands slated to play. In the end, my desire to see the bands I already liked, coupled with my excitement at getting to witness a huge number of unfamiliar bands & musicians, decided me in the direction of getting a ticket. The location of the festival played a big part in my decision too. Who could ask for better?
It is beyond my capabilities to write something that truly does justice to all of the different bands who played the festival. I tried to see all of the performances and almost succeeded, missing only Ash Borer because I was standing in the unmoving dinner line to get my tofu, rice, and beans (ironically, the line was held up while they waited for the chicken to be done, meaning that the vegetarians and vegans had to wait on the meat). My hunger and the smell of the food mandated that I wait as long as necessary. I did hear most of the Ash Borer set from where I stood, but distance blunted the impact somewhat, I’m sure.
The bands, as well as the audience, were primarily of the pagan inclination. The Asatru Folk Assembly was involved in supporting the festival, and had a table in the merch area. Like many belief systems, Asatru definitely sounds good on paper, and if I were a joiner, or searching for my spirituality, I’d definitely be interested in exploring Asatru. On the other hand, I can definitely see the belief system being used to rationalize exclusion, or even racism (which makes it the same as any other religious system, I guess – I mean look at Christianity and some of the evil so-called Christians are involved in). This is a music blog though, so I’m here to concentrate on the music.
So, without further ado, the bands:
After checking in, finding a convenient place to throw up a tent, and drooling over the merch tables, I still had some time to kill before Finnish ritual/ambient group Arktau Eos were slated to go on at 3:00, so I took a walk along the hill overlooking the Yuba River, enjoying the dry, dusty rockiness of the Manzanita covered landscape. It was nice to look towards the Eastern horizon and see nothing but earth, greenery, and sky. I finally wandered back towards Stage 2 for the official opening of the festival, sitting on the little lawn in front of the stage. Arktau Eos appeared hooded in burlap sacks with holes cut for eyes and mouth, making them look like malevolent scarecrows. The performance was more of a ritual, involving a truly impressive knife, the sprinkling of cornmeal on the ground, and mead. Musically, we were treated to ritual percussion on gongs and the like, bells, half heard vocalizations, and an interesting, possibly homemade, bowed instrument that produced a very satisfying, ominous droning sound. Eventually, the crowd was incited into a circle pit while a hooded band member moved amongst them waving his knife. As far as I know, nobody was injured. It was a fun way to kick of the festival.
Check them out on Facebook too.
Stage 1 wasn’t too far away from Stage 2, and involved a walk past the merch area. Very clever of the organizers. During the weekend, I think I stopped at the merch tables nearly every time I passed them. The Pesanta Urfolk table, staffed by volunteers, was a cornucopia of goodness, with new items often appearing (a lot of the bands put their merch there, although some set up on other tables during the course of the weekend).
I arrived at Stage 1 in time to catch River’s entire set. The band consisted of three musicians, one bodhran player and a couple of acoustic guitarists. One of the guitarists also played a lute-like instrument. Some songs had gentle vocals. The band was firmly in the folk camp, sometimes a bit wistful and melancholy, and sometimes more energetic. I liked what I heard, although they didn’t blow me away.
Back at Stage 2, Novemthree had set up around a small table to the left of the stage. The table was decorated with a deer skull, antlers, and legs, as well as candles. The band played as duo, one half of which was the bodhran player from River. They utilized harmonious voice loops, electronics, bells, and acoustic guitar, and lyrically (as well as musically) they weren’t too far away from the likes of In Gowan Ring. Not being previously familiar with their music, I had checked them out online before the festival and had been impressed enough to snap up a bunch of their releases at the merch table. Live, they were fragile, with a sense of ritual about them. I like that they decided to not use the stage.
Lasher Keen is the only band who played the festival that I’d actually seen perform previously, although the performance I’d witnessed was at a wedding. I expected their performance to have a strong visual element, and I was not disappointed. The last time I saw them, it was the last performance of a departing member, and this turned out to be the case with this performance as well, because their percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Sage was leaving the ranks, leaving the band whittled down to the core duo of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (harp, guitar, horns, accordion, etc.) Dylan Sheets and cello player/vocalist Bluebird. Dylan was crowned with leaves, and Bluebird started the performance out in the crowd, doing something that reminded me of the dance of seven veils, but also involving bird wings, incense, and a tray of bread and grapes which she passed around. I love a band that feeds the audience! Later during the set, Bluebird did a fire dance. Musically, Lasher Keen play dramatic pagan folk-based music that at times almost morphs into a twisted sort of prog rock. Dylan’s voice is powerful and idiosyncratic, and the band’s sense of humor reminds me of Faun Fables. The crowd response was very enthusiastic, and the performance proved to be my favorite of the day so far.
Stage 1 was bracketed by a pair of fires which were kept lit for the duration of the festival, thanks to the efforts of a guy who always seemed to be shouldering large Incense Cedar logs and other bits of wood over to the flames. I think they were trying to burn away a couple of large tree stumps. It provided a nice visual backdrop to the bands, although I could have done without the attendant smoke inhalation problem. It probably also contributed to the ongoing problem of black snot, although everything was dry as old bones, so the dust no doubt figured into the snot equation as well. Minor complaints aside, I’m happy the fires were there because they contributed to the singular atmosphere of the festival, not to mention the fact that it tied in with the Light of Ancestral Fires name.
Before seeing them live, I knew absolutely nothing about The Lindbergh Baby. Sometimes it’s nice to sit down in front of the stage with no expectations or preconceptions. The band turned out to be a three-piece, consisting of Scott Broderick on acoustic guitar and vocals, his wife Amber Rae on musical saw and vocals, and the omnipresent violinist Annabel Lee. The presence of the musical saw made the band stand out from other similar bands. The band’s Facebook page lumps them into the neo-folk scene, although they don’t sound much like the “classic” neo-folk bands. They don’t have the same vibe, instead sounding like slightly countrified indie rock. Not gloomy enough, I guess. In fact, their music struck me as being surprisingly accessible. They didn’t reinvent the genre of blaze themselves into my cortex, but it was the perfect music to be immersed in as the sun sank into the west and the clouds bloomed with color. Again, I found myself thankful for the location of the festival. Some guy from the Church of Satan briefly joined them onstage, as did Michael Moynihan of Blood Axis.
Ash Borer provided a soundtrack for my wait in the unmoving dinner line. It’s interesting to hear rabid black metal sweeping across the mountain landscape. At some point, they added a female vocalist to the mix, to haunting effect. I wish I could have actually seen their performance.
Hell, not to be confused with the resurrected NWOBHM band of the same name, was getting ready to play as I wandered back to Stage 2. Things didn’t look good during their soundcheck, with band members mentioning that they’d barely rehearsed and that they couldn’t really hear each other in the monitors. This led me to expect a clusterfuck of sound from them, but it turned not to be the case. When they finally started their set, bathed in red stage lights, they produced a chugging, throat tearing din of epic proportions. Their songs were long, sludgy, and heavy. The fact that they were the only metal band so far (not counting Ash Borer, of course) made them stand out.
I was completely blindsided by Menace Ruine. As with many of the other bands, I hadn’t heard them before, so didn’t know what to expect. They are a Canadian duo of Genevieve (vocals and sounds) and S. de la Moth (percussion and sounds), and damn they were good! Their basic sound might be compared to The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath A Cloud or Hagalaz’ Runedance, and one friend said they reminded him a bit of early Dead Can Dance. For me, Genevieve’s amazing vocal melodies brought to mind Scandinavian folk music. Her performance was absolutely flawless. S. de la Moth provided some martial-sounding electronic percussion, and both members produced a wash of sound, which occasionally reminded me of Windy & Carl for some reason, that perfectly enfolded and supported Genevieve’s vocals. I made a beeline for the merch table after they’d finished their set.
After my successful trip to the Menace Ruine merch table, I once again plopped myself down in front of Stage 2, where Finnish band Tuhkankantajet was getting ready to play. Once they started, they proved to be a quirky mixture of styles, sometimes sounding a bit neo-folky, and at other times sounding like a strange lounge band. They performed a pair of covers as well, by Serge Gainsbourg and Lee Hazelwood. Markus Wolff from Waldeufel joined them on one song. The vocalist reminded me a bit of the vocalist from fellow Finnish band, CMX. I liked their dry sense of humor too.
I had seen the name of the band here and there online, and even skimmed an interview with band leader Dave Nuss over at Invisible Oranges, but hadn’t actually heard the band before this show, mostly because I tend to steer clear of blatantly religious bands, however interesting or strange their religious views are (that said, I do listen to a number of religious bands – for instance, you can’t get much more religious than 16 Horsepower/Wovenhand’s David Eugene Edwards, and I love his passion and music). Sabbath Assembly are adherents to the theology of the Process Church of the Final Judgement, which among other things, tells of the eventual union of Christ and Satan. For me, singing about religion is right up there with singing about unicorns, but I’m willing to overlook overt religious content if the passion and the music are forceful enough. To put it simply, the passion and music of Sabbath Assembly were more than up to the task of converting me to the band. I won’t be becoming a member of the Process Church anytime soon (or ever), but I’m more than willing to become a follower of the church of Sabbath Assembly. They delivered a very solid set of heavy, seventies style psychedelic rock/metal, with divine melodic harmony vocals mainly delivered by the two female members of the band. The lyrics and melodies are from Process Church hymns, which here are fleshed out into heavy psychedelic rock songs to great effect. I came away from the experience very impressed.
Perhaps whipped into a purifying religious frenzy, the Ancestral Fires were definitely rising to the occasion while Sabbath Assembly performed their hymns.
Here's a video clip, originally uploaded by CurvalWorks:
Following the Sabbath Assembly set, I attached myself to a group of people that included a guy who claimed to know where the mysterious “late night acoustic stage” was. There followed a midnight hike through the woods that eventually culminated in our discovery that the “stage” was actually a campfire surrounded by convenient stumps for sitting on. We didn’t get there in time for me to actually get a stump, but I ended up directly behind one, which was good enough. The three members of Hooded Archer were seated across the circle, accompanied by a cow skull placed between two arrows jutting out of the ground. There was a large bow there as well, naturally, but strangely enough, no hoods. The band soon launched into a genre combination I’d never heard before, acoustic black metal. Armed only with acoustic guitars, they played black metal styled songs, complete with the stereotypical raspy, shrieking black metal vocals, making their musical efforts alternately inspiring and comical. The vibe was perfect for black metal – skull, hunting implements, and fire, but I had a hard time adjusting to the raspy vocals. The most impressive song of their set was actually a Bathory cover, A Fine Day To Die, from their 1988 album “Blood, Fire, Death”. Definitely a song I’d never thought I’d hear around a campfire.
One of the most anticipated bands for me was Spain’s Sangre De Muerdago. They’re a relatively new band, but I love the cassette album I’d bought earlier in the year from Brave Mysteries. Musically, they possess the same vibe as classic In Gowan Ring, although with a more Galician folk feel. In other words, perfect music for listening to around a campfire on a wooded mountainside. This is music that masterfully combines melancholy, reverence for the natural world, and hope. Above us, the stars sparkled in the blackness, and around us, the Manzanita seemed to dance in the light of the flames. The instrumentation was cello, acoustic guitar, and viola (the last of which was played by a woman who I’d later discover was also a member of Vradiazei, who played the following day). The songs had an intimate, hushed feel, while at the same time seeming to meld with the majestic surroundings. I can’t stress enough how absolutely perfect it all was. One song, composed by an ex-member of the band, was sung in English. They ended their set with a beautiful Galician folksong. Suddenly, it was after 2 in the morning. It’s a good thing the fire was near my tent, but of course I’d forgotten some things in my van, so I didn’t get to take advantage of this proximity. Once I finally got to sleep, I sleep well.
I woke up sometime after 9:00, and set about getting food and coffee (both of which I had in my van), and revisiting the merch area. Not everybody was set up, so I wandered here and there until I ran into my friend Andy, who would be playing on Sunday with Sutekh Hexen. We killed some time talking for awhile, and eventually, it was time for the first act of the day to begin.
This is the solo project by Mikko Pöyhönen of Tuhkankantajut, and it soon became apparent to me that I liked Mikko’s solo music even better than that of his band. The music played during this set had stronger folk melodies than the music of Tuhkankantajut, although it was a bit less quirky. The melodies were quite infectious, and it brought a big smile to my face. Couple this with smooth, yearning vocals (again I was reminded a bit of CMX) and a sense of humor, and it was a very enjoyable set. In fact, later in the day, Mikko stopped and introduced himself to me, saying that he’d noticed me getting into the music while he was playing. Nice guy. I bought his CD.
Over at Stage 1, the hot sun had driven all the attendees into the shade, leaving the area in the front of the stage quite bare, making it look like Ironwood was playing to an empty lot. The smoke from the ever-present stump fires occasionally wafted across the stage, partially obscuring the band and getting into their lungs. Ironwood is an Australian duo who played competent neo-folk, using acoustic and electric guitars. The acoustic guitarist mentioned that they had recently branched out into doing mellower, acoustic-based versions of their songs, so apparently they also play in a different, heavier style. I found some of their songs boring, but some were really quite good, especially when both members sang together. This was their first U.S. date, and at one point the acoustic guitarist got everybody to come forward out of the shade so he could commemorate the moment with his camera. It’s nice when the bands are just as excited to be there as the audience is.
Back at Stage 1, Will O’ The Wisp had already started by the time I sat down. Their instrumental set, played on harp, cello, and two acoustic guitars, proved to be entrancing. The tone was somber, although the presence of the harp gave it a lighter, whimsical edge. I found my attention held for the duration. Beautiful music.
For people in this music scene, Changes should need no introduction (unless you count the one brought about by Storm and Cthulhu Records back in 1996, when they released “Fire Of Life”, a collection of recordings dating back to the late sixties). The band, consisting of cousins Robert N. Taylor on vocals, and Nicholas Tesluk on guitar and vocals, are considered by many to be the godfathers of the neo-folk scene. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, while their contemporaries were singing about happy hippy stuff, Changes were singing about the downward spiral of western civilization. One might say that the band was ahead of its time, but I never like to look at it like that. Bands, like wizards, arrive exactly when they mean to. I was excited to finally get a chance to catch the duo live, since I’ve had the “Fire Of Life” CD since it came out in 1996, but hadn’t previously seen them play. There was a slight delay because Robert was off somewhere looking for his pipe, but eventually he joined Nicholas onstage and things got started. One of the things that I’ve always liked about the music is the very distinctive songwriting style, coupled with duo vocals, making Changes sound like a pair of wandering bards, warning of evil times ahead. The poetic, sometimes epic, lyrics are a plus too. The set was opened in fine heathen fashion by Asatru Folk Assembly leader Stephen McNallen raising a horn of mead to Odin, and later, the band was joined by Markus Wolff and Michael Moynihan, the latter of whom Robert hailed as being instrumental in rescuing the band from obscurity. Their set was great, and I’m glad I finally got to see Changes play.
Here's Changes, with Markus Wolff, performing Icarus:
Back at Stage 1, C.O.T.A. (Children of the Apocalypse) played a set that reminded me a bit of the Patrick Leagas/Amodali project Mother Destruction, although not as intense. C.O.T.A. is a duo, consisting of a drummer and a female vocalist. Electronics and samples were also used, and I think I noticed a sample of Graham Greene’s sweat lodge song from one of my favorite films, Clearcut. I was a bit ambivalent about the music though. From conversations I overheard, apparently C.O.T.A. is more of a studio project, and at least a couple of people seemed surprised that they were playing live. I’ll have to give their studio releases a listen and see how they compare to what I heard on stage.
Waldteufel is the vehicle for Markus Wolff, formerly of Crash Worship, a band I never managed to see live, although I was always intrigued by stories I heard about their performances. Waldteufel play percussive heathen music, with German vocals by Wolff. They started their set with Wolff thumping a stout wooden staff onto the stage and singing in German, while two bandmates rhythmically swung axes into thick logs at both ends of the stage. More percussive inventiveness followed, the high point of which was Wolff’s mad dash through the crowd with a pair of cymbals. Lasher Keen’s Dylan Sheets joined the band at the end for some horn playing. Very damn pagan, to say the least. I found their set inventive and fun, even though I know very little about Asatru, the belief in which is, I assume, the reason that Wolff chooses to sing in German.
Here's a clip of the axe-wielding fun:
This was another “guy and his guitar” set, featuring Erik Moggridge (who used to be in the Bay Area metal band, Epidemic, which means I’ve seen him on stage before under completely different circumstances) performing delicately melancholy acoustic compositions. Good stuff.
Back at Stage 1, I was first surprised that a band with the word “sisters” in their name would have only one female member (the bass player), and then surprised that they were so damn good. The festival program calls them “dark americana”, and that description fits them pretty well, but it didn’t prepare me for the raucous heaviness of their set. It was almost like Motorhead performing americana. The bass playing was especially gritty and heavy. Other instruments included lap steel, banjo, electric guitar, and drums. I found out later that the young be-hatted guitarist/vocalist is Slim Cessna’s son. He sings in a countrified drawl, with the high, eerie voice of the bassist joining in on occasion. They mentioned that they have an album coming out on Pesanta Urfolk soon. I can’t wait!
Check them out on Facebook too.
Here's a short clip:
The sky had been darkening during The Sterling Sisters set, and by the time I got back to Stage 2, it was mostly dark and Lux Interna had started playing. Their line-up features Kris Force from Amber Asylum on violin, a fact that had me anticipating their set. Plus, festival organizer Adam Collins-Torruella was onboard as their drummer. Beyond having heard their name before, I wasn’t familiar with the band, so I sat down on the grass and set about becoming familiar with them. Their set was both dreamy and heavy, sort of like mid-period The Gathering, with both male and female vocals. Instrumentation was varied, with the aforementioned violin, dulcimer, various percussion implements, and guitar. They were the only band of the festival to utilize projections, although given the placement of the drums, it was hard to figure out what the projections actually were. The sound was loud enough to be somewhat distorted, which detracted from their set, but other than that, their music left me wanting to hear more. I overheard or saw somewhere that their newest album is a heavier affair than their earlier releases. I was happy to hear them play a Townes Van Zandt cover too, in the form of Lungs.
We didn’t have to leave Stage 2 for Vradiazei’s set, and after a bit of soundchecking, the lights dimmed, candles were lit, and the music commenced. I was intrigued by the description of the band in the festival program, which gave no hint to what kind of music they played – “The realization that the darkest days are yet to come inspired us to abandon the use of electricity in our music. We express the anguish of the past, the desperation of the present, and the uncertainty of the future without it. When the world is left in ruin our sound will echo in the empty streets”. As it turned out, the band’s chosen instruments were acoustic guitar, viola, and banjo, which was more than all right with me. They played under dim blue stage lights and candlelight, and their music was beautiful, managing to be simultaneously haunting and strangely joyful, inspiring me to pick up a record and shirt afterwards. Their set was mostly instrumental, and the viola player had played the night before with the wonderful Sangre De Muerdago.
Despite their relative popularity in the neo-folk scene, I haven’t really followed the music of Blood Axis. I have few songs by them in my collection in the form of compilation tracks and a split 7”, but don’t own any of their full length releases, mostly because I’m not usually a big fan of martial sounding songs and spoken vocals. That said, I think they played a great set, with strangely charismatic band leader Michael Moynihan on bodhran and vocals, Annabel Lee on violin and occasional vocals, and a heavy rhythm section. At one point, Moynihan invited Changes singer Robert Taylor on stage for a heavy rendition of the Changes song, Waiting For the Fall, from “Orphan In The Storm”. I was also happy to hear their version of the Fire+Ice song, Seeker. Other guests included Markus Wolff and Asatru Folk Assembly leader Stephen McNallen, singing a hymn to Odin, which Moynihan explained was based on a hymn to Shiva.
Here's a short clip of Seeker, truncated due to battery failure:
Funerary Call’s set wouldn’t have worked very well during the hot afternoon, but at 11:00 PM, it was perfect. They played to the side of a red-lit banner, generating ominous drones and creaks. At one point, a I noticed that one of the cloaked and hooded band members was using a deer antler fitted with a contact mic as an instrument, creating ominous sounds by scraping and tapping it. It was an eerie come-down after the rock and roll shenanigans of Blood Axis. I ended up leaving the set a bit early to make sure I got a good seat at the “late night acoustic stage” campfire.
Lasher Keen, Knotwork and Changes
I managed to grab one of the last stumps around the fire, and we ended up getting treated to an encore Lasher Keen performance while we waited for Knotwork and Changes to show. Since Knotwork is essentially the traditional song version of Blood Axis, they were most likely delayed by the fact that they’d only recently finished a set over at Stage 1. Lasher Keen proved to be just as fun in an intimate campfire setting as they had been on stage on Friday, and it was nice of them to entertain everybody while we waited. The other bands eventually showed up, and we were treated to a brand new Changes composition, a 6 part epic that, if I remember right, Robert Taylor mentioned picks up after the events portrayed in the movie “Braveheart”. Since they hadn’t really rehearsed it, the version we heard was a little rough, with some stops and starts, but this added to the “sitting around a campfire” charm of the moment, so it was just fine. At some point, the guy next to me passed out and toppled from his stump. His friend dragged him away from the circle, but his nearby snoring provided a backdrop for the remainder of the evening. Several other people stumbled and fell in the dark too. Accompanying himself on accordion, Michael Moynihan performed another Ian Read song, Invocation (originally performed with Current 93) which he introduced at a Scottish cursing song. Switching to bodhran, he did great versions of The Two Magicians and Twa Corbies, as well as other similar songs. Annabel Lee played some reels on her violin, and both Moynihan and Lee took care to explain the origins of the songs. One of the pieces that Lee played was originally from the first Garmarna release. I approve.
I got to bed slightly before 3:00 AM.
Sunday morning Yuba River (above) and the Pesanta Urfolk merch table (below). Both excellent in their own ways, and a perfect merging of my two worlds - nature and record-nerdism.
I slept in until 9-something, and finally managed to wander down to the Yuba River, where I explored for a bit before heading back up.
As was the case with some of the other bands/artists this weekend, Circulation Of Light, which is the solo project of Brave Mysteries label boss Nathaniel Ritter, would have benefitted from a twilight or nocturnal setting. It’s odd seeing this kind of music in the stark light of the noon hour. That aside, Ritter produced a very enjoyable set, wandering barefoot across the grass as he sang/vocalized to the crepuscular sounds emanating from his onstage equipment. I found the music alternately relaxing and ominous, and Ritter sings with an almost ritualistic cadence, making his set seem like another opening ritual. As I type this, I’m listening to his release, “Acheiropoieta”, on his Bandcamp page and contemplating yet another musical purchase. His set would prove to be one of Sunday’s only non-metal ones.
The black metal portion of the day started with Hail, hailing from Portland, Oregon yet producing an entire set of music based on the Finnish national poem, the Kalevala. They marched in from the northeast, hooded like specters, playing ritualistic percussion, and brandishing banners. They made their way through the audience and arrived onstage, where they plowed into some throat-tearing black metal. The gritty guitar sound and variety of tempos kept things interesting, and despite the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of the black metal vocal style, I was engaged for the duration of their set.
Back at Stage 1, under the appropriately smoky, ash filled sky, Fell Voices plowed into a 1000 mph din. At first, their rabid single-mindedness and lack of sonic variety was a bit of a letdown, but somewhere in the middle of their set, everything clicked into place for me: Fell Voices are the epitome of what black metal should be. Their music is simple, but grandiosely brutal, suggesting epic vistas of cold, northern forests at twilight where even breathing is a struggle. More than any other metal band at the festival, they managed to transcend into a realm that was almost mystical in its impact. Also, they had a pump organ player, who sat calmly with a Mona Lisa smile, looking and sounding for all the world like the eye of the band’s musical storm. I couldn’t hear her at all while the band was blasting along at full gallop, but the pulsing drone came apparent when the frantic guitar and bass paused for breath. The drummer was the true focal point though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more rabid display of aggression on a drum kit, and his facial expressions were a treat as well, reminding me of the expressions one might see on a Viking berserker in the heat of battle. In addition to this, he pulled double duty as vocalist, shrieking as he pounded his kit. The fact that he was relying on the drum mics to carry his voice meant that the vocals, while powerful, sounded like they were being carried in on the wind. Wow.
After Fell Voices, Servile Sect was a bit of a letdown. They continued the black metal theme, but with only guitar, drums, and keyboards/effects. Despite this somewhat atypical instrumentation, their music didn’t draw me in.
Yet another Portland black metal band, this time with Waldteufel leader Markus Wolff (on keyboards and occasional vocals) along for the ride. The stage was often partially obscured by the smoke from the fires that bracketed Stage 1, which added the appropriate visual element. Musically, they were more engaging than Servile Sect, but a step or two behind Hail and Fell Voices. It could be that I was starting to get a little black-metalled out. After all, it’s not a genre I really follow closely. In other words, take my black metal reviews with this in mind.
I have to start out this review by revealing that new member vocalist/noisemaker A.C. Way is a friend of mine. I’ve even shared a stage with him under the guise of Inn. Aff. (Orchext.) for what were essentially experimental super jams mainly comprised of members of NF Orchest and Irr.App.(Ext.). With that out of the way, on with the review. Sutekh Hexen take a sideways step away from black metal, producing a cacophonous soundsludge of ominous aggression. Twin guitars layer on walls of sound, while Way’s sonic manipulations and effects-laden vocal savagery add an additional element to the mix. They were yet another band that would have benefited from a fog enshrouded nightclub stage, and like the other artists of the day so far, witnessing them in the warm afternoon sun was akin to seeing owls cavorting in a sun drenched meadow. Sometime after the set, I mentioned to Mr. Way that the Sutekh Hexen set was like being caught inside a jet engine. “Exactly”, he replied.
As with Circulation of Light, Burial Hex’s set was a solo affair, this time by Clay Ruby. As with many of the other artists at the festival, I was familiar with his work in name only, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. That’s always a good feeling though, the anticipation of something different and new. Ruby started things out with a couple of noisemaking implements that looked like springs inside small, rectangular boxes, contact miced and run through effects for maximum sonic output. These were used in conjunction with backing sounds, producing a disorienting sonic feast. As the show progressed, it became more songlike, with Ruby playing a keyboard melody and singing. For much of the vocal portion of the piece, Ruby dispensed with the stage altogether and menaced the audience, crashing through the crowd as he sang. Back on stage, equipment was knocked about, and the intensity grew. The music managed to balance on a tightrope of chaos and quiet menace, and Ruby was obviously enjoying himself as well. So did the audience.
After the respite from black metal provided by Sutekh Hexen and Burial Hex, Idaho band Wolveserpent was more or less a return to the genre, although they were a bit more varied in their approach than the previous bands of the day. The band is a duo, with a drummer (Brittany McConnell) and guitarist/vocalist (Blake Green). McConnell also doubled as a violinist, using the instrument during the intros and sometimes looping the sounds before returning to her kit. Some of the band’s music bordered on doom metal, and Green’s guitar sound occasionally brought to mind Celtic Frost, which in my opinion is a good thing.
Boulder, Colorado band Velnias’ set went by in a bit of a blur for some reason. They played a mixture of black and doom metal, with the almost requisite folk undertones that seem to accompany the genre these days. The stage was lit by dim red lights and candles while the band churned out their anguished songs. The music was enjoyable, but for me, there wasn’t really anything that set them apart from countless similar bands. The crowd response was good, and it wasn’t the first time that day that it seemed to me that there were a lot of people in the audience that I hadn’t seen on the other days. I guess a lot of metalheads were only in attendance on Sunday.
By the time French band Aluk Todolo started playing on Stage 2, it was nearly dark. The stage was lit by a single, bare bulb hanging in front of the drum kit, creating an almost noir-ish atmosphere of mystery. The band started with a jaw dropping burst of adrenaline, locking into a groove that sounded like an instrumental black metal version of Finnish band Circle. The drummer was like a human metronome, keeping up an inhuman pace for the duration of the song. Like Circle, the band built tension through the use of repetition, while at the same time being utterly hypnotic. Over the course of their set, they slowed things down a bit, but always kept their hypnotic groove. The final song was a dirge of epic proportions which slowed to a menacing crawl before grinding into silence. In a way, their set seemed like an intentional seque, starting as it did with a frantic pace to match Velnias, and ending with a monolithic slab of doom more akin to the songs of the upcoming Mournful Congregation. However one chooses to look at it, their hypnotic instrumentals were absolutely jawdropping, and I feel fortunate to have gotten to see them play. Now that I’ve listened to their excellent new album, “Occult Rock”, I can report that the opening and closing songs of their set are also the opening and closing songs of the album. They may have played the album straight through. Alas, my memory isn’t perfect enough to confirm this.
Under the cold blue lights shining down on Stage 1, Australia’s Mournful Congregation unleashed a tremendous set of epic doom metal, which although nothing original (the band immediately brings to mind UK bands like Paradise Lost, Anathema, and My Dying Bride, circa their first handful of releases) was completely satisfying. It has been years since I’ve leaned against a stage and head banged, but during Mournful Congregation’s set, I found it impossible not to. Their chugging, string-bending riffs were that compelling. The vocals were in the doom/death mode, although some clean vocals crept into the mix in at least one of the newer songs. During their set, ash from the fires rained down, adding another layer (literally and figuratively) to the experience. Perfect.
Arktau Eos were tasked with providing both the opening and closing sets for the festival, and the closing set proved to be similar musically to the opening one, although this time out they dispensed with the corn meal and enforced circle pit, making the proceedings more ominous. The bells, percussion, and bowed drone instrument were back, as were the burlap sack hoods, looking truly menacing in the dim stage lights. The set seemed to last longer too, and I despite wearing a sweat jacket, I was getting cold. Eventually, without a word, the band wandered off, leaving the audience patiently sitting in the grass. Eventually, I got up and left, and I still don’t know if that was the end of the set or not. Back at my tent, I could swear that I still heard music. In fact, I fell asleep and had a dream that I was doing laundry and the washer had an unbalanced load, making a thump thump sound. I woke up to hear what sounded like drums in the distance, along with occasional far off freeway noise.
The next morning, I packed my stuff back into the van and hit the road for home. I have to admit that I was greatly anticipating a shower.
Overall, the festival was absolutely phenomenal. The Facebook event page is already rife with anticipation for next year, with people already suggesting bands and other ideas. As for improvements I’d like to see, I think having a designated dinner hour would be nice. This year, getting dinner meant missing music, so after missing Ash Borer on Friday, on Saturday and Sunday I threw together quick sandwiches from my food stash so I wouldn’t miss any music. Having marked recycling and composting areas would be nice too, especially since the festival is supposed to be a celebration of nature. I saw so many trash cans overflowing with bottles and cans, which isn’t a very good way to respect the natural world. Don’t get me wrong – I think that festival organizer Adam Collins-Torruella and the volunteer staff did a phenomenal job in pulling off an event of this magnitude, but there is always room to tweak things and make them even better.
Check out Last FM's Stella Natura page too - lots of good listening.
There were definitely some funny characters in attendance too. I still wonder what was up with the guy who showed up in a fishnet shirt and a ball and chain. What odd fashion sense. Generally speaking though, it was an interesting mix of neo-folkies (which an unnamed friend said were like crust punk hippies), metalheads, music geeks, and heathens. I’m interested to see what next year might bring. The three 2013 headliners are due to be announced on the Pesanta homepage on October 31st. Place your bets.
Here's my full set of photos, taken with my increasingly dusty point-and-shoot camera.