Central Texas has sadly hosted few editions of Paganfest, Heathenfest, and other folk metal packages over the years, so the announcement that the Faroese vikings of Týr would co-headline in Austin with the eminent kings of Middle Eastern folk metal, Orphaned Land, excited me more than just a little. And somehow, despite my coolant distributor bursting on my way to the capital city, I managed to make it to the venue in time. w00t!
First up was the Québécois band Aeternam. Though most of us can be forgiven for confusing these Frenchy Canadiens for more established bands like Aeternus and Texas’ own Solitude Aeturnus (I sure as shit did), anyone with a working set of ears will quickly determine that these young-uns are forging their own damn path. Led by Achraf Loudiy, Aeternam have created a distinctly Arab-influenced and distinctly non-Swedish brand of brutally melodic death metal that sometimes draws from Nordic folk traditions. Throw in some thrashy riffs, choirs, Arab strings, verses sung in Latin and Arabic, and you’ve got a much more accessible counterpart to the inimitable Nile, and like the inimitable Nile, Aeternam are proving their onstage prowess early in their career. Drummer Antoine Guertin, for example, counters Loudiy‘s menacing presence and Aeternam‘s frighteningly deft sound with an unassuming vibe and a playful grin. Clearly unwilling to be upstaged by a guy who can’t move around the stage, guitarist Maxime Legault behaves like a showy, bratty kid on a playground, goofily grimacing while leaning over his rapt audience. That Aeturnam‘s unique take on the burgeoning genre of Middle Eastern metal is as somehow refreshing as it is speaks volumes about this unassuming quartet. Keep an eye on these guys.
Up next were Seattle upstarts Ghost Ship Octavius. I’d lamentably missed their set at ProgPower XVII, so I was anxious to see what former Nevermore drummer Van Williams had been whipping up with former God Forbid guitarist Matt Wicklund. And, as with Aeternam, I became an instant fan. Though decidedly less aggressive and angry than Nevermore, Ghost Ship Octavius retains the passion and rage that typified both gentlemen’s resumes while broadening both their scopes with a newfound penchant for the epic; see “Alive,” from their eponymous debut. Ghost Ship Octavius‘ progressive proclivities can no doubt be attributed to frontman Adōn Fanion, whose command of the stage, the guitar, and his voice have been turning heads since said debut was released in 2015. I don’t know who this guy is, where he’s from, or what he’s done before, but he’s making himself and his band forces to be reckoned with. Not to be outdone, Wicklund stalks the stage like a man possessed, the LED uplighting that accompanies his pedalboard indicating the need for an exorcism. His work on set-closer “Mills of the Gods” deserves special mention: its recurring melody sees him going all tappity-tap across the high end while squealing the pitch up an octave as he does a right-hand slide up the fretboard in a manner that recalls Pantera‘s “Becoming.” Wickund‘s seamless move into breathier, jazzier territory on this particular number demonstrate a finesse that belies his onstage persona. Wickund (who also toured with Himsa in the mid-2000s) and Williams told me later that evening that they’d completely sold out of CDs earlier in the tour. Their performance this evening makes it easy to see why.
Ghost Ship Octavius were followed by perhaps the most socially significant band in contemporary heavy metal: the Israeli quintet Orphaned Land. As we discussed in the inaugural Talking Perspectives podcast episode, Orphaned Land have made their mark by promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence between sparring peoples, most notably between the Arabs and Jews of their homeland. In so doing, Orphaned Land have gathered a dedicated following in many Islamic countries; singer and bandleader Kobi Farhi credits Orphaned Land‘s continuation after a lengthy hiatus to a message from a Jordanian fan that included a photo of his tattoo of the band’s logo. Then, around 2011, a photograph surfaced of Orphaned Land performing with a Lebanese dancer, who proudly waved her country’s flag alongside the band’s Israeli flag; in the crowd was a sea of Arab flags. For many, this one grainy image taken from the drum riser was proof positive that metal had succeeded where diplomacy had failed. Even an NPR correspondent took notice of the band’s impact on the region and reported on them as the Arab Spring began.
The Orphaned dudes began their set with “The Cave,” from this year’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, and it became immediately evident that not only had the band’s songwriting skills survived the departures of founding guitarists Matti Svatizki and Yossi Sassi, but their performance skills had as well. As the band tore through highlights of their last four albums, it also became evident that their reliance on backing tracks has decreased; I vividly recall my disappointment at a raucous SXSW performance where Yossi‘s folk instruments were piped in while his electric saz stood ignored by the stage. New guys Chen Balbus and Idan Amsalem wisely choose to arrange those parts for the electric guitar, giving the band a more live, organic sound, though I yearn for the day Orphaned Land follows Eluveitie‘s lead and plays folk instruments on stage. Hearing the disembodied voice of the incomparable Shlomit Levi during “Sapari” was a little unsettling, but hearing it did remind me just how wonderful it was to hear her on the new album after her absence on All is One. The set closed with the usual medley of crowd favorite “Norra el Norra” and “Ornaments of Gold,” but not before a local dancer joined them onstage to much excitement from the crowd. This was my fifth time seeing Orphaned Land live, and it was my fifth time being very glad I had done so.
The audience erupted the moment the Faroese heathens of Týr took the stage with the yet unreleased “Gates of Hell,” its laugh-inducing refrain borrowing from the Scottish folk song “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.” The energy with which Týr have refined their sound since their slower Eric the Red days has proven to be a great boon to their accessibility and success; compare “Regin Smiður” to more recent fare like “Tróndur í Gøtu.” The band’s unspeakably cool vocal approach remains consistent throught their career, but the speed and playfulness with which they’ve livened up their sound must simply be heard to be believed. To see that they were able to replicate it while performing like lunatics with very little digital assistance was cooler still.
Tyr, of course, are known for spicing up their unique brand of folk/jig/pagan/Viking metal with a fair bit of humor in both their performance and their attitude. This was on solid display when they followed “Hold the Heathen Hammer High” (another unspeakably cool song with unspeakably cool vocals) with the rabidly anti-Nazi “Shadow of the Swastika,” a move that I’m sure would deflate the egos of the NSBM fuckwits that sometimes appear at Central Texas shows. (No word on if those losers came out to support a band that’s touring with a bunch of Jews and an Arab). After performing for over an hour and a half, the mighty Týr had left their audience thirsty yet satisfied, and fully pumped for the new album that is expected to drop in the Fall of 2018. Another Týr tour will surely follow, and you’ll go catch them if you know what’s good for you.
The ruptured coolant distributor made the journey home a much more treacherous affair than it would normally be, but thanks to some Bordertown engineering (that old trope about the kindness of strangers? Still true), I was able to make the sixty-mile drive in a little under three hours. Even if it had taken six, though, it would have been worth the trouble of beholding the Austin’s invasion by the heather hordes.
Damascus Gate / Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel / Praetor of Mercury / Hubal, Profaner Of Light / Goddess of Masr
Ghost Ship Octavius Setlist:
Saturn and Skies / Bloodcaster / Mills Of The Gods / In Dreams / Delerium
Orphaned Land Setlist:
The Cave / All Is One / The Kiss of Babylon (The Sins) / We Do Not Resist / Like Orpheus / Sapari / Birth of the Three (The Unification) / Norra el Norra / Ornaments Of Gold (outro)
Gates of Hell / Blood of Heroes / Mare of My Night / Grindavísan / Hall of Freedom / The Lay of Thrym / Regin Smiður / Flames of the Free / Lady of the Slain / Gandkvæði Tróndar / Sinklars Vísa / By the Light of the Northern Star / Hail to the Hammer / Turið Torkilsdóttir / Grímur á Miðalnesi & Wings of Time / Tróndur Í Gøtu / By the Sword in My Hand / Hold the Heathen Hammer High
Encore: Shadow of the Swastika / Ramund Hin Unge