September 20, 21, and 22
This was my second year attending Stella Natura. I was so blown away last year that there was no way I could miss this. My anticipation of the event wasn’t even dimmed by the fact that some of the acts (Wardruna, Of the Wand and Moon, Die Wiesse Rose) had to pull out at the last minute due to visa problems.
As always, this is a review written more in the style of a personal journal, so bear with me… And by all means, follow the links and listen to the music you find there.
Last year, I went by myself and didn’t do much socializing. Only a handful of friends attended, and I tend to keep to myself in unfamiliar surroundings. This year I went with my wife and brother, and a larger number of friends were in attendance. More of the bands were previously familiar to me as well, including a few that played at the festival last year. This alone was sure to make this year’s festival a much different experience than last year. Spending more time socializing this year meant taking fewer notes for the review, so I’m relying more on my imperfect memory this time out, so I apologize in advance for any factual errors.
We left the San Jose area early on Friday, making one last stop at the grocery store before heading out to the highway. As we entered the store, a mom with a couple of young kids in tow was exiting. The boy, who couldn’t have been older than four or five, was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, but that didn’t stop him from giving us a friendly wave. For some reason this stuck with me all weekend.
We stopped in Berkeley to pick up my brother and headed for the mountains, passing through Roseville where a couple of short years ago my brother and I had watched our dad die in a hospital bed. This is worth mentioning all on its own, but made more poignant by the fact that festival organizer Adam Collins-Torruella lost his mother right in the middle of putting the final touches on this year’s event. With this tragedy in mind, he deserves a big thank you for carrying on.
Upon arriving at Stone Bear River Camps, we checked in and headed down the bumpy dirt road to find a spot to pitch our tent. We passed the spot I’d grabbed last year because some early bird had already claimed it, and headed down the hill towards the tent cabins and the Yuba River. Eventually, we found a spot near what appeared to be a bathroom, but upon closer inspection proved to contain just sinks and showers. The port-a-potties were across the path. In the brief amount of time between setting up the tent and heading back up the hill, we ran into a couple of friends, both of whom had been at the festival last year as well.
Stages One and Two were in the same places as last year, but the little patch of grass that blanketed the ground in front of Stage Two was missing, and the two huge fires bracketing Stage One weren’t yet in evidence. One of the fires would later be lit, and it would prove to be a much needed source of warmth. Last year’s so-called Late Night Acoustic Stage (which was actually a campfire circle) had reportedly been replaced with a proper stage this year, but since nobody was slated to play there until much later on, we stuck around between stages One and Two, getting the lay of the land (and also dropping the first dollars of what would prove to be a rather decadent music shopping spree at the various merch tables).
Unlike last year, when nearly all of the metal bands played on Sunday, this year the first day was the metal day, blasting us all into submission right out of the starting gate.
Things got started over on Stage One, the largest of the three stages. Amarok was previously unfamiliar to me, so much so that I had to ask who was playing. The guitar sound was huge and heavy and the band projected slow motion, roiling slabs of down-tuned crustiness into the virgin mountain air. The vocals were of the anguished shriek variety, which had my brother chuckling. Song lengths were on the “epic” side of the spectrum. In fact, I think the set only consisted of two songs. I would have liked them better if it weren’t for the fact that the music world seems bursting at the seams with bands playing this style these days. Still, they weren’t bad. Just not the most original band I’ve ever seen.
Weightlessness was also unknown to me. They played on Stage Two, which is smaller than Stage One but has a scenic overlook to the right. This year, there was a nice backdrop built out of logs and branches, giving the stage a pleasingly rustic appearance, like a rough-hewn mountain lodge. The band was more black metal sounding than Amarok, and featured a keyboard player, plus dual male and female vocals. They are a new band, and it showed in their performance, which seemed kind of tentative to me. My wife Jeanine, who isn’t a black metal fan, commented that they were “hilarious”. I wouldn't say that, but there is definitely room for them to grow into their sound.
Continuing the trend of bands that I hadn’t heard before, Pale Chalice played high energy black metal which added nothing new to the genre. Band members wore corpse paint, which was a bit incongruous with the sunny surroundings, but then again black metal and forested mountains go hand in glove. They were the best band of the day so far, but the day had barely begun.
Upping the ante was Aldebaran, who slowed the pace to an emotive crawl as the drummer howled into the mic. The songs were full of mournful melody, and that made all the difference. The band successfully melded anguish and tunefulness, creating songs with much more depth than the previous three bands, and all without sacrificing any heaviness. If anything, they were the heaviest band of the day so far. They were also the first band of the day to inspire a purchase, although I didn’t manage to buy their new cd until Sunday. At this point, as the sky darkened, Jeanine decided to call it a day and head back to the tent to read.
Dispirit were the first band of the day that I’d seen before, back when they opened for Agalloch in San Francisco. Guitarist/vocalist John Gossard has been in a number of Bay Area bands, including Weakling and Asunder, so despite only having a couple of cassette releases to their name, the band are seasoned professionals. Stage fog obscured the band as they ripped through their lengthy, heavy doom/death compositions. As with every other band so far, the vocals were raspy growls, although Gossard occasionally added some unique touches to his vocal delivery, modulating the upper end of his register to pleasing effect.
Hell is loud, slow, and brutal. This seems to be the style in vogue at the moment, because the same description could be applied to many of the other bands playing on the same day. Like last year, the band performed under red stage lighting, making photography a challenge. Unlike last year, they performed on Stage One instead of Stage Two. I enjoyed their set, but as with a few of the other bands who had already played, I found my enjoyment to be very surface level. So far, only Aldebaran really plumbed the depths.
After several hours of guttural chuggery, the delicate beauty of Worm Ouroboros’ music provided a much needed counterpoint. The band is a three piece, featuring Lorraine Rath on bass and vocals, Jessica Way on guitar and vocals, and Aesop Dekker on drums. Candles flickered onstage, and strings of little white lights graced the mic stands, providing a visual approximation of the band’s music. Jessica and Lorraine provided beautiful, serene vocals for their slow, emotive music. This was especially effective when the two sang in harmony. Occasionally, the songs swelled into heavier territory before sinking back into shimmering beauty again. The waning moon was rising beyond the trees as they played, and Jessica seemed to spend a lot of time gazing up at it, as if entranced. The music they played provided the perfect soundtrack for the cold distance of our lunar sphere. There is a wistful quality to it, both yearning and peaceful. It was absolutely beautiful, with the music immeasurably enhanced by our surroundings.
Back on Stage One, Loss provided us with more epic, anguished slowness, with slow, heavy grooves and gut-wrenching howls. When I later told guitarist/vocalist Mike Meacham that I liked their set better than the one at MDF, it surprised him because he was of the opinion that that their MDF set was one of their best. “But it wasn’t in the woods”, I said. We agreed on that. I liked the other guitarist’s Budgie shirt too.
I only partially paid attention to their set because to my ears, their music was basically more of the same, falling into the rapid fire attack category. Blazing black metal, long on aggression but short on originality.
I hadn’t hear Australia’s Stargazer before, and soon discovered that the band was more of a technical thrash metal band than black or doom. It made them stand out from the pack a bit. The guitarist was amazing.
One of the fires was now burning brightly, and people gathered around.
I missed Ash Borer last year because of the dinner line (a problem that was resolved this year by having a food vendor serving all day). Having finally seen them, I found that their music is along the lines of Knelt Rote, but more interesting. They have a keyboard player too, and varied the tempo somewhat, giving the songs a more “epic” feel.
The moon and clouds provided a stunning ceiling, and I often found myself tilting my head back and gazing into space as the music flowed through me.
This is one of the bands I’d checked out online before the festival, so I knew more or less what to expect. Their set was crushingly heavy and filthy, with monstrous, lumbering songs bulldozing our eardrums, only occasionally bursting into ramming speed. This would be a great soundtrack for getting torn apart by angry sloths. The pace was often so slow I imagined the drummer going and taking a nap between beats, or the whole band going into reverse. Through sheer ferocity and ugliness, their music stood above that of the other, similar bands who’d played earlier. The bottom end was abyssal, to say the least. Doom sludge in its purest form. They reminded me a little bit of the French band, Monarch. Purchases were made, and I’m happy to report that their record is great too.
By this time, it was getting late. The combined Trepaneringsritualen/Sutekh Hexen performance was the first of the day to take place on the mysterious Stage 3, which I had been told was somewhere near the “acoustic late night stage” from last year. With this knowledge, it was a pretty simple matter to find it, and find it we did. Ghostly blue lighting shone eerily through stage smoke (from a smoke machine cleverly placed under the stage), guiding us in.
Trepaneringsritualen is Thomas Martin Ekelund, and his performance was shrouded in ghostly blue, darkness, and stage fog which, due to the vagaries of the breeze, would sometimes lift to reveal his ominous shadow in front of the stage, lit only by blue bulbs and a candelabra. I hadn’t had the pleasure of hearing his music before this moment, but I had been told that it was cast in the mold of old school industrial/noise artists like SPK, or perhaps the kind of thing found on the Cold Meat Industry label. This turned out to be a fitting description. Ekelund’s heavily processed voice filled the darkness as he roared into the mic over a backdrop of noise and funereal beats. The surroundings lent an air of mystery and danger to his performance, making it seem more like a secret ritual than a show in front of a paying audience.
As he continued, members of Sutekh Hexen could be seen on the stage behind him, and eventually they added their own sounds to the din, a stretched and smeared version of the type of music played earlier in the day, with sepulchral howls from Andy Way (brother of Worm Ouroboros’ Jessica Way) and ominous noise (mostly guitar-based) from Joshua Churchill, Ryan Jencks (also in Dispirit), and Kevin Gan Yuen hiding somewhere in the blue darkness of the fogbound stage. The melding of sound and atmosphere was perfect, making the combined Trepaneringsritualen/Sutekh Hexen performance one of my favorite moments of the festival.
The set ended with Kevin smashing the lights with a wine bottle and possibly knocking some other things over as well, as if he was finally delivering on the threat of violence implied by the music. It was a fitting if somewhat mystifying conclusion to the show.
He later wrote: “Another round of apologies to the stage-manager and sound-man for the vomit, broken glass and mangled stage-lighting.. those guys were on top of their game!!!! >> ps. I was serious when I said that I would do that to my own gear, because it is built to last.”
So, there you have it.
It was now around 3:45 AM and time to retire to the tent. We stumbled in and joined Jeanine, who had already been asleep for hours. Around an hour later, the first heavy drops of rain impacted on the outside of the tent.
Rain is a peaceful sounding thing, except when it’s hitting a tent right above our sleeping heads and finding its way in through seams in the fabric. I woke up with moist feet less than 3 hours after I’d gone to sleep. Jeanine and I lay there and listened to the rain awhile while Greg slumbered on. Eventually, we gave up any hope of returning to sleep and got up. Outside, yesterday’s dust had turned into a moist paste of mud and duff. Rivulets of water worked their way down the hill, and stone outcrops glistened.
Jeanine, not being as committed to the music as my brother and I are, elected at that point to try and find a hotel, so we got in the car and followed the now treacherously muddy road up and out. The combined power of my car’s GPS and the one on Jeanine’s phone eventually led us to the Rustic Inn in Emigrant Gap, which had no vacancies but made up for it by having an adjoining restaurant where we could get some breakfast. More importantly, there was hot coffee. While eating breakfast, we met a couple of Stella Natura attendees who’d had the foresight to book rooms there in advance. Our server had neck tattoos, and in the other room, there was some sort of group bible reading going on. It turned out that the place is run by a non-profit Christian discipleship ministry that helps people with “life issues” get back on track, which explained the tough looking wait-staff.
Eventually, we ended up in Colfax and found Jeanine a room in a hotel with a “no vacancy” sign. That’s why it pays to go in and ask. She was happy to spend the weekend relaxing and reading, and perhaps exploring Colfax a bit, but I still felt bad leaving her there. So much for attending the festival together.
It wasn’t raining in Colfax, but as we headed back up the mountain, the weather got progressively worse, with fog obscuring the distance and rain lashing the car. We parked in the upper lot and walked into camp to discover the stages tarped over (Stage Two looked particularly waterlogged). Nothing was happening, and the rumor mill was running rampant. We heard everything from “bands will play soon in the VIP area” (the area set aside for band members and such) to “they’re going to shuttle people to a nearby lodge and bands will play there”, to “everything is canceled!” It sounded like the staff were trying to come up with a plan, but hadn’t finalized anything yet. We heard that a lot of people had left to find dryer places to stay. I imagine the rain was especially hard on people who didn’t have the option of retreating to their vehicles.
We ran into another attendee (whose name I now forget, unfortunately), and wandered down along the rain-spattered Yuba for awhile. The rocks were glistening, but the rain died down a bit while we were there. Finally, we circled up through the tent cabin area and back to the main part of camp.
We ran into our friend Nils by one of the hobo-like barrel fires that had sprung up around camp, and he was in possession of an awkward flute-like instrument and a small whistle carved out of elder wood. He did entertaining things with them.
Eventually, the rumor about bands playing in the VIP area proved to be true. The first couple of musicians slated to play had originally been supposed to play acoustic sets at a late night gathering after the headlining bands had finished – sets that never happened due to Friday’s music running so late (or at least I assume they never happened).
To begin with, there was very little dry standing room as people crowded under the existing shade structures. Death Aesthetic was one neofolk guy with a guitar, and from my vantage point out in the rain I wasn’t overly impressed. His music didn’t add anything new to a genre already overburdened with imitators. Still, kudos to him for stepping up and playing in the rain.
Continuing the “guy with a guitar” theme was Weather Vanes. I liked his music better too, although not enough to discover whether or not he had anything to purchase. Again, it was neofolk, but seemed less influenced by the obvious bands.
By this time, the Stella Natura staff had managed to erect a tarp over the open area facing the biggest shelter, and Will O’ the Wisp was getting ready to play. I had seen them for the first time last year and had really liked their music. They’re an instrumental four-piece, playing beautiful compositions on Celtic harp, cello, and two acoustic guitars. I think that this year I liked their set even better. The constant sound of rain added a beautiful sonic backdrop to their melancholy tunes. They didn’t play for very long, and as they played, the wind picked up and started tossing the jury-rigged tarp shelter around in such a way that every so often, the water that had collected in the dips was flung off a corner and onto some poor unsuspecting audience member’s head.
Then, Celtic harp player Asia Moore introduced the last song with, “As you all know, winter is coming”, and I knew before the first note started that we were about to hear the Game of Thrones theme music. I wasn’t disappointed, and it was perfect with the rain pouring down and the music swirling upward.
Here's a video of them playing the beautiful The Center Cannot Hold:
A dog with a sweater wove its way between the legs of the musicians as they played. I think this was my favorite set of the day.
Aerial Ruin, the solo project of Erik Moggridge, was next up. The rain still lashed down and the tarp above us often filled like a sail, straining at its tethers. I’d seen Moggridge last year in the sun, and have to say that seeing him in the rain is more fitting. His songs are melancholy, with an underlying darkness, although this was somewhat offset by his humorous quips between songs (mostly about the weather and BUYING HIS FUCKING NEW RECORD). It’s tempting to lump him into the “metal guy doing sensitive acoustic music” club, but he does it so well that it seems unfair to do so. Listening to his set, I was occasionally reminded of Steve Von Till, although Moggridge’s voice is less world weary than Steve’s is. My brother was more ambivalent about him, so I told him that his music grows on you, and he said something like, “I had a feeling it might.” I mention this because last year I’d liked his set, but not enough to buy his CD. This year, I had planned to buy it, and had even seen it on the merch table on Friday, but all of the tables were shut down on Saturday due to the rain (indeed, there was a muddy lake taking up much of the merch area) so I hoped I’d get a chance to buy it on Sunday, but it never reappeared. I did recently buy his split LP with Stevie Floyd though, and it’s great.
After that, the wind finally got the best of the tarp and it sagged to the ground. It was announced that the Sterling Sisters were supposed to be up next, but that it would be awhile. We elected to go grab some essentials out of the tent and move them to the car so we could spend the night car camping. On the way back, I took a couple of short videos:
Yes, it was snowing.
We put our stuff in the car and did some more standing around, eventually ending up at a warming fire that the first aid guys were tending. They’d found a guy passed out in the snow (too much to drink) and had him propped up in front of the fire. He was suitably grateful. I talked to him the next day, and he said all he remembered was waking up in front of the fire. He might have died if they hadn’t found him. While we were getting warm, John Andrew from Blood of Kvasir walked up and said they’d be playing by another fire nearby. Apparently, the official music was over for the day due to the inclement weather and most of the musicians being ensconced in a lodge somewhere (and eventually unable to get back due to the freeway being shut down), so it was up to whatever musicians were left to get some entertainment going.
I hadn’t heard Blood of Kvasir before, and was happy to discover that they’re local to me. They’re a duo of the aforementioned John Andrew on guitar and bouzouki, and Shannon Wells on bodhrán (and later, a couple of joined together bass drums). We gathered under a small temporary shelter, taking turns drying off by the raging hobo fire while John and Shannon entertained us. Most exciting to me was their great rendition of the old ballad, Twa Corbies, a song that, despite my having heard many versions of it over the years, never gets old for me. Greg and I both bought CDs.
I had seen her sitting by the check-in kiosk and playing her banjo when we first got to the festival, and she played again by the fire. I think she just played one song, but the beautiful, backwoods quality of her voice and banjo playing was captivating. She slightly reminded me of Jolie Holland. Nice.
Noctooa was a revelation as well, mostly because of the utterly profound voice of singer/guitarist Sammy Fielding. His vocals were smooth and deep, like an underground river. Guitarist Jorge Gallo had a voice that was almost as impressive, and the two sounded great together. It’s always nice to hear neofolk that doesn’t sound so obviously influenced by Death In June and the like. They played this informal set as a duo, but on their CD they are joined by two additional members, a violinist and a cellist. Their music combined perfectly with the fire and rain, not to mention the camaraderie of the huddled, shivering audience. We all took turns being near the fire, and a couple of times I actually came close to burning myself. I managed to melt my camera case while trying to dry it out. It’s a good thing I had enough sense to not try drying my camera out the same way.
While Noctooa was playing more people had gathered, including all the members of Fire + Ice (appropriate, considering the weather and the fire) which featured a subset of musicians, Michael Moynihan (bodhrán and vocals) and Annabel Lee (violin and vocals), who performed as Knotwork.
Joined by John and Shannon from Blood of Kvasir, Michael and Annabel played a great version of The Well Below the Valley:
Afterwards, more traditional songs were played, including Two Magicians and Twa Corbies. Michael was less than pleased by the chilly conditions, but carried on. Annabel was cheerful throughout, and proved to be a pleasure to talk with afterward, as did the Blood of Kvasir folks. A pretty big crowd had gathered by this point, and the rain had renewed its attempts to soak everybody. The fire cast its warmth outward, but not far enough to warm the people on the fringes of the crowd. Even though I was literally a foot away from Annabel as she played, I found myself just beyond the shelter, with rain showering down on my head. In many ways, this Knotwork set was quite similar to the one they did last year over at the campfire circle that was Stage Three, but on this night there was the special camaraderie that comes from being huddled together against the elements while music plays and fire burns. It was positively medieval.
Here's Knotwork performing Twa Corbies.
Afterward, it was announced that there was warm food ready over at the VIP area (which is, after all, where the dinner had been served each night last year), so we made haste to join the line and feed ourselves. It was nice to run into Bluebird from Lasher Keen (who had played last year) serving food. Eventually, Greg and I made our frozen way up to the car and spent a fitful night sleeping there. At least once, I woke up to turn on the heater for awhile.
And so the night passed…
We awoke to windows covered in condensation, so much so that it was impossible to tell what the weather might be like outside. Upon clearing the condensation away, a clear sky was revealed to us. On our way down to camp, a guy greeted us and pointed out the ways the sun was making the waterlogged trees sparkle. The guy at the food vendor tent gave us some of last night’s coffee for free. I think it was him who first told us the power was out too. We were later reassured that all of the stages had generators, and even later told that the power was out due to routine maintenance being done by the power company (who’d neglected to mention this to anyone before starting).
We ran into some friends and made our way down to the overlook just beyond Stage Two. The mountaintops were all white with snow, and off to our right a helicopter was lowering something to the ground (at first we thought it was some sort of rescue effort, but later discovered that it had to do with the aforementioned routine maintenance). Pictures were taken.
We headed down the hill to pack up our tent, only to discover that somebody had taken a dump on the ground about 10 feet away. It was greenish and glistening, and I could very well imagine that whoever had left it there was overdue for a medical check-up. It wasn’t as if the port-a-potties weren’t only about 10 feet away. Sure, the inevitable mud that had been tracked into all of the port-a-potties made them look less than inviting, but that’s really no call for crapping on somebody’s temporary front doorstep. Later, a friend opined that it was most likely gutter punk poop. We’ll never know for sure. It made packing up a more mindful exercise than it needed to be. We also had to tilt the tent to get all of the standing water out of it before we could stow it away.
Around us, all of Saturday’s moisture was steaming away into the air, making some of the nearby trees look like they were smoldering. It provided a beautiful, magical backdrop to our mundane packing efforts.
Once packed, we headed up the hill to see if we could discover when bands were supposed to start. It would have made sense to get everything started early in order to fit in all of the bands that didn’t get a chance to play on Saturday, but nothing much happened until early afternoon. Tentative, hand-written schedules were posted near the stages, and it became obvious that decisions were going to have to be made due to many bands having to play at the same time. During the day, more changes would happen (at least partially due to the fact that some bands shared members – for instance, Bob Ferbrache couldn’t very well play in both Fire + Ice and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club if they were scheduled to go onstage at the same time) and times would be pushed back.
Music finally got started on Stage Three. Word had it that there were still water-related issues getting worked out on the other stages.
Blood and Sun are neofolk through and through, and they wear their influences on their sleeves. Their song titles and musical style brought to mind Sol Invictus, so much so that I’d say their sole concession to originality was the presence of a dulcimer player. Other instrumentation included acoustic guitar (of course), cello, violin, and drums. I enjoyed their songs, but they definitely have a way to go if they ever want to stand out from the pack. My brother was less charitable in his reaction.
I notice that on their Facebook page they refer to themselves as Americana neofolk. It would be interesting to hear them increase the Americana content of their songs, because it just sounds like neofolk to me. The dulcimer is definitely a good start though.
There was an inordinately long wait while Kinit Her got their gear sorted out. They kept piling more and more stuff onto the small stage, and there was at least one mini-crisis when a laptop power cord went missing. Fortunately, a woman in the audience saved the day by running back to her tent and lending the band a compatible cord. The other thing that was evident from their soundcheck was that the band possessed a sense of humor, which is always a plus in my book.
The band had only appeared on my radar relatively recently, due to band member Nathaniel Ritter having played a solo set at the festival the previous year. Their music is a bit hard to describe, but “psychedelic neofolk” might serve. They finally got started, delivering a set of very original songs featuring keyboards, laptop fuckery, hand drums, rattles, animal horn trumpets, violin, various effects, and bass. Everybody sang, adding a strange communal joyousness to the songs. Very nicely done.
Unfortunately, due to the time they spent setting up and soundchecking, their set was on the short side.
Unfortunately, Common Eider, King Eider played on Stage Two at the same time that Kinit Her was performing on Stage Three, so I missed almost all of their set. My brother was doing sound for them, using equipment he wasn’t familiar with. He muddled through it somehow. Andy Way, who did double duty with Sutekh Hexen and Common Eider, King Eider, was also sorely disappointed to miss Kinit Her. This was more of a “big band” version of the group, featuring not only Andy, but Andee of Aquarius Records fame on drums, so even though I’ve seen the band a number of times, I missed something rather special. I did manage to see the last few minutes of their set, but didn’t really witness enough to write any sort of description or review. Hopefully somebody recorded at least some of it. Their new cassette release is great though. You should buy it.
I wandered over to Stage One to check out Maledicere for a moment or two, but after a few minutes of listening to them playing aggressive metal, I remembered I was kind of metalled-out from Friday, and also that Changes were likely starting on Stage Three, so I left.
Sure enough, Changes were already playing when I got back to Stage Three. I found a seat on the ground (which the staff had thoughtfully layered with straw to prevent us all from getting muddy butts, just as they had here and there throughout the rest of the site) and settled in to listen. Changes played last year as well, so this was my second time seeing them. Again, I found that the songs that stood out for me were the ones from their debut album, “Fire of Life”. They played the title track, Icarus (which, despite its anti-science lyrics, is probably my favorite – also, actually a B-side to the “Fire of Life” 7” and not on the album proper), The Saddest Thing, and R.I.P. Van Winkle’s Pipe Dream. They also played Waiting for the Fall, with Michael Moynihan joining them on vocals, and a segment from their epic six-part song Legends. If I remember right, they ended with a song from their new 7”, “Ride the Tiger”. I’m not sure how many songs they played before I got there. I don’t think I caught too many entire sets that day, mostly due to the tentative start times and schedule changes. The newer songs are all in the same style, and although they’re good, they don’t quite have the magic of the songs from the first album.
After Changes, my brother and I decided it was lunchtime, so we went and moved the car up from the tent cabin area and found a parking spot outside the main gates. Once parked, we munched on blocks of cheese and other items from our bags. Cheese is good. Eventually, we headed back down towards Stage One.
Velnias played last year and I had found them good but not essential. This year, we caught the last song or two of their set, and my opinion stayed about the same. They’re often described as having folk elements in their songs, but to my ears, these elements are buried deeply. They play some seriously aggressive black metal, with more atmosphere than most of the other high velocity metal bands that played the festival this year, but as with some of the other bands whose sets I only caught a few minutes of, I didn’t catch enough this year to write a proper review. I liked the 5 or 10 minutes I heard though.
I only caught a little of Waldteufel's set while waiting for Jarboe to go on, and while I enjoyed what I heard, I didn't stick around long enough to justify writing a review. They were very interesting last year though, and their set this year was full of the same rhythmic grace.
I somehow managed to miss the beginning of Jarboe’s set as well, mainly because I didn’t think the changeover would happen so fast. I’ve seen Jarboe multiple times before, both as a member of Swans and afterward, but it had been a number of years since I last saw her (in San Francisco, at the Bottom of the Hill, if memory serves). For this show, she was dressed in an ankle length red dress and accompanied by guitarist P. Emerson Williams. Williams has an unusual, percussive guitar style, and looked like he was enjoying the hell out of playing. Jarboe crooned her way through some seriously smoldering songs, including one that she had composed for a couple’s wedding (or something like that). She mentioned that it would never be recorded, but that she’d been given permission by the couple to perform it live. She also performed the Swans song Mother/Father, from “The Great Annihilator”, loosing some blood curdling, throat tearing growls towards the end. After that, she invited us to sing along on the wordless vocal part to the Skin track, Blood on my Hands. I noticed that her gaze was often drawn to the large fire burning off beyond stage left. It was as if she was drawing inspiration from it, in much the same way that Jessica Way seemed to be drawing inspiration from the rising moon during Worm Ouroboros’ set on Friday. In short, the set was beautiful, yet brief (although I got there late, so it’s partially my fault).
The blue stage lights make her look like a Smurf in some of my photos.
Hexvessel were another of those bands that had somehow escaped my notice until the festival. I was expecting something a bit more neofolky from them, but was pleasantly surprised by their excellent, old school folk-rock influenced songs, especially the seriously heavy ten plus minutes of His Portal Tomb, with its massive Sabbathian riff. Another highlight of their set was their cover of the old C.O.B. track, Soloman’s Song. I was grinning ear to ear when I realized what it was. I don’t think I quit moving for the duration of their set. The music was infectious as hell, and to me they sounded like some well-kept secret from the seventies. I’m definitely a fan now.
Hey look, there’s an official video for His Portal Tomb.
Instrumentation, beyond the usual rock instruments, included violin, various bells and rattles, keyboards, tambourine, and a trumpet.
On Saturday, there had been word that they were going to perform a special acoustic set in the afternoon, but this never materialized. It sure would have been interesting to witness though.
Poison Ring (aka BrYan LeFey) and Lux Interna had traded their scheduled times for some reason, most likely because a lot of people wanted to see both Hexvessel and Lux Interna. This meant, of course, that I missed a good portion of the Poison Ring performance in progress at Stage Two during the Stage One Hexvessel set. Greg and I had actually spoken with BrYan earlier (was it Sunday or Friday? I forget now), mostly because of the interestingly packaged CDs he was selling. We asked him to describe his music, and he explained that his performances involved manipulating tape loops, and that there was a visual/theatrical element to them as well. This turned out to be an apt description. LeFey looked enough like a mime that somebody (I forget who) had joked about expecting a mime performance of some sort. The stage was mostly dark, with strategically placed candles, and at one point he descended onto the ground in front of the stage and did something there that I couldn’t really see from my vantage point at the back (the other drawback to arriving in the middle of a performance). The music was beautiful, textured loops, full of crackle and grit, but ultimately soothing in an unsettling, ominous sort of way. LeFey spent the whole time with a knowing smile on his face, which added to the mysteriousness of the performance. He ended his set by painting his hands and then using them to slowly smear the paint down one side of his face. I’m glad I bought the CDs (Greg and I got the last two copies of one of them) beforehand. They’re both excellent, by the way.
LeFey doesn't have a web presence at the moment, so there's no link.
It was getting chilly.
Esoteric were soundchecking over at Stage One, so I joined the crowd there. Greg decided he was metalled out and headed back to Stage Two for Lux Interna. I was curious to see Esoteric because, even though they’re not a band I’m that familiar with (they came into being in the early nineties, when I was more focused on non-metal music), they seem to be highly regarded. I waited there, and waited some more. They finished their soundcheck and left the stage. Nothing happened for awhile. My friend Stacy, who was waiting with me, gave up and headed off to Stage Two. Five or ten minutes later, I did the same.
Perhaps they were waiting to start until Lux Interna was finished.
I saw and liked Lux Interna last year, and in the interim I’ve gotten their new album, which is great. Being more familiar with the songs this year, plus the fact that there was perhaps a slightly better live mix, caused me to enjoy them even more this year. They projected movies onto a screen behind them, adding an additional visual element to their set. Like last year, Stella Natura curator Adam Collins-Torruella played drums for them and Kris Force of Amber Asylum played violin. The songs beautifully bridge the gap between the Americana of bands like The Sterling Sisters, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, and the like, and the spare, gritty acoustic songs of people like Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till of Neurosis fame. Much of their music is quite intense though. Like last year, they threw in a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Lungs. I’m glad I gave up on Esoteric to catch Lux Interna again.
I did get to see a little bit of Esoteric’s set afterward at least. It was pretty much like I expected it to be: Monolithic slabs of doom served up with an extra helping of unintelligible vocal noises. Good stuff.
By now, it was quite cold and quite obvious that the festival was going to have to run all night to fit in all of the remaining bands. Fire + Ice had flipped start times with Halo Manash because guitarist Bob Ferbrache needed to play with both Fire + Ice and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. Rather than clone the poor man, an executive decision had to be made to not have the bands play at the same time.
Since it was already well after midnight, we had to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we were going to end up missing the last few bands slated to play. It kept getting colder too.
For this performance, Fire + Ice were Ian Read (of course) on vocals, Michael Moynihan on percussion/backing vocals, Annabel Lee on violin and backing vocals, and the aforementioned Bob Ferbrache on acoustic guitar.
There were some sound and equipment issues, including a missing floor tom (Moynihan eventually affixed his bodhrán to a drum stand), and microphones not seeming to work. We waited. The temperature dropped a bit more.
Finally, they got started with Benediction (the original version of which can be heard on Current 93’s “Swastikas for Noddy” LP). Last year, Moynihan had performed it as part of the Knotwork set, and it was nice to hear the band open their set with it this year.
The first Fire + Ice release, “Gilded By the Sun”, appeared back in 1992, which was a very exciting time for me, musically speaking. The genre that eventually became known as neofolk was in its infancy, and the dark, nature-themed music struck an immediate chord within me. I was already familiar with Ian Read because of his involvement with Current 93 and Sol Invictus, so buying “Gilded By the Sun” was kind of a no-brainer. I’ll admit that subsequent Fire + Ice releases, at least for me, didn’t live up to the promise of the first one, but despite this, I was excited to finally get a chance to see the band perform.
Despite the cold, the band gave a great performance, playing at least a couple of songs from the first album (Long Lankin and Gilded By the Sun), as well as the folk songs The Cutty Wren and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Towards the end of their set, poor Bob Ferbrache got too cold to fingerpick his guitar (which is a shame, because he apparently learned all of the songs in a very short space of time).
After Fire + Ice ended, we hustled over to Stage One just in time to catch the last few minutes of Munly and the Lupercalians. Based on the bizarre costumes alone, it looked like it was an entertaining set. I once saw Munly do a solo set in Fresno (opening for Scott Kelly) and he’s great all by himself, so I imagine he’s even better backed by a band. Oh, well.
We headed back to Stage Two hoping to catch at least a portion of Halo Manash’s set before 2:00 AM rolled around (I’d told Jeanine we’d be by the hotel no later than 2:30, since we had a long drive and didn’t want to become mired down in morning traffic). We watched them setting up and soundchecking, and the hanging cymbals affixed with contact mics, bowls of water, and other ephemera strewn about the stage made it look like an interesting performance was in store. Unfortunately, 2:00 rolled around before they started, so unless a video shows up online somewhere, I’ll never know exactly what we missed.
I missed both of these sets in their entirety. I saw Hail last year and they were pretty good, but not absolutely essential for me to see again. I’m currently listening to a video of Saturnalia Temple from this year’s festival and kicking myself for completely missing them. Their guitar sound brings to mind early Death SS/Paul Chain. Damn.
Ionophore features Leila Abdul-Rauf (ex-Amber Asylum). Unfortunately they were slated to go on after we had to be elsewhere. Later, a friend told me that they had canceled because members had to catch an early AM flight. I did buy Leila Abdul-Rauf’s new record though, mostly on the strength of the beautiful Tor Lundvall painting on the cover, but also because I vaguely remember reading something good about it. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s beautiful. As for Ionophore, you can buy their limited edition cassette (or download) here. It’s very nice too.
I heard that they went on after 2AM. I’m consoling myself with their live LP, which I bought late on the last day. I’ve seen them multiple times before though, so watching them again wasn’t essential for my well-being.
Went on at 3:50 AM – Slim was losing his voice because of the cold, or so I heard.
Apparently they passed around a “strange herbal liquid”, and played around the same time as Slim Cessna. I dearly wish I could have seen them this time out.
I wish I’d gotten a chance to see all of the bands, but sometimes imperfection is what makes things interesting, and missing out is what makes us strive harder (not that striving harder would have made a difference here, but I still stand by my point).
Here's the Facebook event page.
Here's my entire set of photos.
The people who attended the festival were definitely a varied bunch as well. The main thing that impressed me about everybody I met was the camaraderie, especially on Saturday when all hell broke loose. There were a couple of guys wandering around dressed like Vikings too, plus one or two people who, for whatever reason, were walking around barefoot in the icy Saturday weather (shoes got too wet? Proving some sort of point? I’ll probably never know). I heard a lot of people not only left on Saturday, but demanded refunds. That could be just the rumor mill though. Rumors flew thick and fast while things were getting figured out. Apparently, Jello Biafra was in attendance on Sunday (rumor has it…).
One of the funnier stories I heard came from a friend who overheard a bunch of people gathered around a fire (or maybe just at their camping spot) singing Kumbaya in their best growly metal voices. Earlier, I’d overhead a guy saying, “the Inuit have 8 words for snow, but Immortal have 9!” Metal humor...
A lot of people had been evacuated out of the lower camping area on Saturday due to flash flood warnings, but of course some refused to leave, preferring to brave the elements. As far as I know, nobody was actually washed away.
I took the weather in stride. Sure, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to see all of the bands who were scheduled to play, but that’s not the thing that bothers me about the festival this year.
One of the main reasons I’m drawn to the type of music presented at this festival is that I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic combiniation of ugliness and beauty. Many of the bands this weekend sound like the distillation of various aspects of the natural world into human art. Black metal is the storms and natural disasters, and the gentler music speaks for the meandering streams and hidden life. Black metal is ugly music, but there is often beauty interwoven with the ugliness, or perhaps it’s beautiful because it’s ugly. Neofolk is less overtly ugly, but often the topics covered in the lyrics are relentlessly dark, like a soundtrack for every predator/prey relationship, every bird fallen from a nest before it can fly, every long, hard winter... Pretty much every band that played during the festival was steeped in lyrical or musical darkness, or both. As for the overt pagan sentiment espoused by many of the bands and attendees, that’s great too. If I was a joiner and not an avowed atheist, I’d be a pagan. Paganism makes so much more sense to me than Christianity and the other monotheistic religions.
However, when the darkness is present outside of the realms of artistic expression, I have a problem with it. A lot of neo-pagans seem to romanticize the past to such a degree that they feel a need to ape the raging xenophobia of their ancestors. Yes, people from most tribal societies were more often than not likely to adopt a “fight or flight” attitude towards strangers.
Here in the 21st century, their spiritual descendents can apparently be found standing behind tables of racist literature.
Like others, I’m troubled by the fact that a right wing (and based on at least one of the titles I heard they were selling, plus statements from the vendors own report on the festival), racist publisher was vending at the festival – a festival that Adam so eloquently stated was “just a music festival” and “a-political” (this in response to an anonymous hack-job article claiming that Stella Natura was a breeding ground for fascists). The presence of a right wing publisher Counter Currents does seem to lend at least some credence to what the anonymous article was claiming, and this troubles me because all other aspects of this festival were absolutely top notch. I would like to continue supporting this endeavor wholeheartedly, but the taint of racism is impossible to overlook. Sure, these people have a right to publish whatever they want, but I have an equal right to condemn them.
The man behind the table, Greg Johnson, published a short Stella Natura report online (go search for it if you want to read it - I'm not going to bother linking to it). What were the statements in the report that bothered me most? Let’s see… How about, “Of course, not everyone into neofolk, black metal, neopaganism, or Traditionalism is white, much less a White Nationalist. But a good number of them are.” And… “The staff was also quite security-conscious due to “anti-fa” huffing and puffing about “fascists,” which is their codeword for white people gathering without sufficient Jewish mind-control.” In my opinion, people who stand behind statements like this are termites in the moral foundations of the world. The thing about termites is it’s really hard to know how far they’ve spread until you shed some light on them. Consider these paragraphs a flashlight. Also, it doesn’t really sound like Johnson was there for any other reason than selling his books. If he cared about the music, he might not have bailed out when the rain made it impossible to continue selling things.
These kind of sentiments also remind me of the kind of crap spouted by all of those conspiracy theory wingnuts out there in internetland, so obsessed with some strange theory or other that the big picture is entirely lost on them.
As for his statement that a good number of fans of these genres are White Nationalists, I would hope that he is exaggerating, but I fear that he is at least partially right. Black metal and neofolk are genres that are somewhat tainted with musicians that buy into this sort of thing (although to be fair, black metallers often just claim to hate everyone equally). Many of them are somewhat circumspect, but others less so. It’s good to see that at least one band, Worm Ouroboros, has already made a very eloquent statement against the presence of a Counter Currents table at the festival. Here it is in full:
The purpose of this note is not to fan the flames, but rather to state our point of view on the matter. It is with a heavy and disappointed heart that we write this. It has come to our attention that Counter Currents was vending at Stella Natura this year. This was to be a non-political music event and their presence was deeply offensive to us personally and to our fans, and frankly surprising. We would have hoped that out of respect for the performers and attendees this would not have been permitted but sadly this was not the case. Stella Natura is not a racist event. The bands who performed are not racist or political. This irresponsible decision to allow them to vend puts our non-racist, non-political band in the position of having to state our stance, lest our silence on the matter be confused with compliance. Had we been aware ahead of time, Worm Ouroboros, and we are sure many others, would have asked that the vendor be barred or we would not have agreed to play.
weekend was incredibly beautiful. The performers, the crowd, the gorgeous
setting, the wonderful people working there, all of these things are so magical
and precious to us. We got to witness inspiring performances by musicians who
are true to their craft and vision. Our writing is inspired by nature and
we cannot imagine a more appropriate setting for us than in the woods beneath
the moon, playing to a group of people that treated each other and all of the
performers with an openness and reverence. It was a honor to be invited to play
among so many amazing musicians and beloved friends. That this experience could
be tarnished by the presence of an individual seller who was not only
completely incongruous to the intent and the artistry of the vast majority of
us there, but vile and hateful, makes us incredibly sad. This was/is a
beautifully crafted event that is treasured by those who have attended and we
are sure they were as surprised as we are that this occurred. Actually, most of
us were probably not aware, and it is perhaps this fact that frustrates me the
most. Yes this was a vendor on the sidelines who came and went, and yet if we
are not vigilant, their presence will mar the reputation of us all and corrupt
the scene that we are building together. Whatever the reason for their
presence, it should not have been allowed to happen. We must refuse to let the
ugliness of the few undo the beauty of so many. They have no place here among
Love and light to you all.
Here is festival organizer Adam Collins-Torruella’s earlier statement in response to allegations that the festival is lousy with Nazis:
"This is indeed an unfortunate article. Our official policy is not to respond to anonymous opinion pieces (unsigned editorials), and this one is particularly malicious, factually misleading (with many poor and outdated sources) and defamatory towards the reputation and name of Stella Natura.
The simple truth is that Stella Natura will never be co-opted by outside interests. I am completely in control of the event. No platform is given to any political positions either by allowing such messages on stage or by allowing confrontation among our attendees.
Most folks going to the event and those who have supported the event since 2009 know the accusations within this article are simply absurd. Stella Natura is simply a music festival, and I've tried my best to curate the top talent these underground circles have to offer.
My highest recommendation to you would be to simply ignore the notions behind this article and have a great time. There will be no one at my event trying to convert you to their agenda. Anyone causing issues in reaction to this article, or if issues do arise that this article speculates, the person(s) will be escorted off the property. The safety and wellbeing of all of our guests and artists is my number one priority.
Thank you for your concern, I assure you that you'll have a great time”.
These are comforting words, but I think that the name and reputation of Stella Natura is just as likely to be damaged by allowing racist vendors as it is by anonymous internet attacks. Sure, I’m for free speech, but the last time I looked, hate speech is more akin to falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded public place. It’s damaging and dangerous. However one looks at it, there is definitely room for a more thorough sociological discussion to be had here. It almost (and I stress the “almost” here) makes me glad that Johnson showed up with his books, because his presence has brought this issue out into the open. Sure, it put a bit of a damper on what was otherwise a flawless weekend (yes, despite the string of weather-related problems, I had such a good time I think the word "flawless" applies), but it has definitely gotten people talking (too much, some would say). I care about this festival. In my experience, there is nothing else quite like it. I want it to succeed year after year, and this is why I’m taking up so much space writing about this issue. Hell, if we talk about this enough, Johnson’s presence at the festival this year might just end up backfiring on him and those who share his ideology.
I’m betting that these days many intelligent people are sickened by the pervasive malaise of modern culture(s), and some of them find themselves fleeing back into the relative comfort of their ancestral roots by practicing some sort neo-paganism or other. Let’s not repeat the xenophobia of our ancestors though. Let’s revel in art together and find common ground in opposition to the illness of consumer culture with all of its hypocrisies. Hating and condemning people based on their race or culture is just damn silly, not to mention ugly.
In short, our differences are our strength, but if you differ from me because you hate people who differ from you, then I have a problem with your ideology. Okay, moving on…
On a brighter note, South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) receives a portion of the proceeds from Stella Natura. I’m glad that some of my money is going to this group because I feel that in the long run, this type of stewardship is crucially important. Kudos to Adam and staff for not only curating an event free from any kind of corporate sponsorship, but donating money to a local environmental cause.
Despite the misgivings mentioned above, I came back from the weekend energized and spiritually refreshed. The Stella staff and the bands are all to be commended for going above and beyond the norm to deliver a fantastic weekend of inspiring music and art. Adam and his staff functioned well under crisis, scrambling to salvage what they could during the storm and getting things back on track for Sunday. Things got a little bit chaotic there in the middle, but those of us who took it in stride were well rewarded in the end.
In short, great bands, wonderful staff, perfect choice of an organization to donate funds to, but I’m still bothered about the racism thing. Don’t give the anonymous bloggers the satisfaction of getting to say, “I told you so.”
Against the modern world, not against each other.