Turisas/ Alestorm/ Ex Deo/ Arkona/ Huntress/ Protokult @ The Opera House, Toronto ON, April 2nd, 2012

Review and Photos by Natalie Zed

This probably means that I am getting old, but loyal Hellbounders, I have to say that six hours is a long time to stand on concrete floors at a venue that does not have reasonable bathrooms, edible food, or any seats to offer respite. Protokult stepped on stage at 6:30pm sharp and Turisas didn’t start their headlining set until a hair before 11pm. I love the Opera House for its magnificent dinginess, but it is asking a lot of any audience to have marathon shows in this space.

That said: there is something about Paganfest that is magical. Someone on my Twitter feed referred to it as “the Comic-Con of metal shows” and I can’t think of a more apt description. The cosplayers were certainly out in force, from warriors carrying drinking horns and wearing utili-kilts to pirate wenches in striped tights. Before a single note was played, I saw foam swords, pirate flags, inflatable moneys, and even one memorable chain mail bikini. This show was all about the pageantry, about proclaiming your allegiance to one of the pagan metal subcultures, whether that be Russian folk or Roman Centurion. It made the audience a part of the entertainment, and made the ridiculous length of the show a lot more bearable.

Local folk metal band Protokult kicked off the night with a brief set that drew material primarily from their most recent EP, Marzena. They incorporate the mixed cultural backgrounds of the various band members into their performance, into a sound that reminds me of nothing so much as metal-inflused Romany music. Vocalist Ekaterina‘s strong soprano voice often cut through the rest of the instrumentation, dominating the mix when she was on stage. The rest of the band members wore white, puffy shirts, tied at the neck like tunics and looked, quite frankly, hilarious. Their set was definitely on the kinder, gentler side of pagan metal, providing a light intro to the night.

Next up were Huntress, who were, unfortunately, my least favourite performance of the night. They play occult-styled traditional heavy metal, which should be something I enjoy. Vocalist Jill Janus is unquestionably the focal point of the band, as she twists and writhes, shrieks and wails for the audience. Her voice is definitely good, and at times sounds almost otherworldly. However, it is almost as though the rest of the band thinks that, since all of the audience’s attention will be on Janus, they can phone it in. I found their classic metal, which sounds a lot like White Wizzard and Holy Grail with a smidge of witchcraft mixed in, to be uninspired and overdone, and not nearly as captivating as it should have been. It might have been an off night for Huntress, but my initial impression was all (very very pretty) smoke and mirrors.

Then, Arkona performed and served as the perfect antidote. This Russian folk metal band bring with them an authentic ferocity that colours every aspect of their performance, from their leathers and furs, to the traditional wind instruments, to the infections throb of their war drums. Masha is a wolf behind the mic, all flashing blonde hair and bared teeth, going for the throat. Arkona stuck to newer material, particularly from Slovo, and kept their set up-tempo and ravenous. It was with this set that the real, transformative energy of Paganfest began to manifest, changing the vibe from that of a ordinary show to something greater, a collective cultural hallucination.

If Arkona hinted at the possibility of transcendence, subtly nudging the audience to give up their hold on reality and give in to the dream of the magic of myth and hunt, then Ex Deo demanded it. Storming the stage, clad like Roman warriors, addressing the audience as citizens from the first moment – this was officially the moment when this concert ceased to be just a show and fully became an interactive LARPing session. Vocalist Maurizio Iacono demanded a “Roman wall of death,” making the kids in the mosh pit feel like gladiators. Ex Deo played a lot of material from Romulus, but also previewed their forthcoming new album with the title track “Caligula.” I have always been very much a fan of this Kataklysm side-project, and this set further enhanced my affection.

Alestorm unquestionably had the largest, and most rapid, contingent of fans in the audience. From the moment the first, rousing keytar notes filled the air, the entire room erupted in bloody joy. They easily could have headlined this show based on the audience response, but made the absolute most of their time on stage. They played a great deal of material from Back Through Time, such as the rousing drinking song “The Sunk’n Norwegian,” but also treated their fans to favourites “Keelhauled” and “Wenches & Mead.” There was not a moment when kids wearing eye patches and holding up flags emblazoned with the jolly roger weren’t stage diving. For all that Alestorm are a silly band, they are completely without guile and pretence. They know exactly what they are and are fully committed to having as much fun at every performance as they possibly can — and in return, their fans absolutely adore them.

Headliners Turisas mounted the stage for the final set of the night surrounded by huge banners, bearing their trademark red and black logos. The band members dressed like warriors, their faces smeared in distinct red and black warpaint, and conveyed a dominating presence. The crowd had thinned a bit by the time they went on, as some of the exhausted pirates cleared the venue, but they still played to a large and enthusiastic audience. Their performance included a great rendition of “Rex Regi Rebellis” also featured “Hunting Pirates” as an affectionate dig to their tour mates. Those who stuck it out to the encore were treated to their much-beloved cover of “Rasputin.”

This show demanded a great deal from the audience, very active kind of participation, and much to endure in terms of duration and intensity. However, most of the bands on the bill also gave a lot, so in the end we were all exhausted and satisfied.

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.