As with all subgenres of the metal world, the underground is a haven for lesser-known talent and creative brilliance, many of whom are more than ready to step up and be counted. Folk music is something that perhaps does not immediately feel like an easy fit with such a naturally belligerent and boisterous universe as that of heavy metal, yet not only does this melding of such polar opposite genres exist, but it works very well indeed. Warhorns Festival, now in its fourth active year of showcasing any and all amalgamations of folk and Viking metal, continues to be a celebration of not only the UK’s home grown talent but also of bands from overseas who further enhance the event with their contributions to this ever-popular fusing of genres.
Located once again at the Riverside Venue in the Viking settlement of Selby (just south of the city of York), 2015 promised to be bigger and better than ever before, with the legendary Skyclad headlining the two-day event and sharing the stage with many other well-respected acts.
With the unfortunate news of four bands having to cancel their appearances for various reasons, Red Rum’s vacated slot goes to Old Corpse Road, a band who are no strangers to this very festival, having performed at Warhorns twice previously. I’ve never been entirely convinced by the Darlington sextet’s gothic black metal approach, yet every time I see them becomes another piece of the puzzle to what will hopefully become their fully realised — and much deserved — bigger picture. Their work ethic and strong fan base have together proven to be their guiding light over the years, and with choice cuts played tonight from acclaimed début album ‘Tis Witching Hour… as Spectres We Haunt This Kingdom, their tales of British folklore are as captivating as they are ear-piercing. Bass guitarist and spoken word vocalist The Wanderer guides the band from the front, and from well-executed keyboard melodies through to the high-pitched black metal screams emanating from various members, all six of the troupe feel fully utilised amongst the sprawling, and often ambitious, compositions. Closing with an older fan favourite, ‘The Old Corpse Road’ induces mass headbanging before receiving a well-deserved ovation.
As Nothgard take to the stage surrounded by their native flags, it becomes clear that the five-piece are proud of their Bavarian roots. Their folk-tinged melodic death metal is a hit with the crowd as they play through tracks taken from both début Warhorns of Midgard and 2014’s Age of Pandora, with the reception from the crowd strong despite the floor not seeming as densely populated as it was for Old Corpse Road. As is only befitting to the festival they have found themselves at, they shred their way through a storming version of ‘Warhorns of Midgard’ before making way for tonight’s headliners.
To cement Warhorns as a true international festival, Argentina’s Skiltron arrive on stage to a cheer from the expectant crowd, although anyone would be forgiven for mistaking them for Scots: their black kilts and sporrans betray their Celtic musical inspiration if not their nationality. Their lively set at Bloodstock 2013 won them a host of new fans on this side of the equator, and tonight they are once again on top form as Geordie live vocalist Martin McManus leads the South Americans in their folk-cum-power metal charge. The inclusion of a piper in the band (courtesy of newcomer Pereg Ar Bagol) is far from a gimmick, with the Frenchman adding a wealth of distinctive melody and raucous energy to the performance. Martin has to leave the stage once or twice during the band’s set as he is currently suffering from laryngitis, but it is testament to his dedication to the band and to the festival that he is here at all. The remaining four members take the time to play through a couple of instrumentals that are well-received by the crowd, but it is Martin’s return to the fore that gives the band a genuine boost, with the venue subsequently erupting to the rousing ‘Bagpipes of War’.
With day one at an end and the crowd thoroughly satisfied, the festivities continue amidst the small beer garden and the makeshift, hilariously rammed camp site.
With the first band on at half one in the afternoon – due to a slightly altered running order – nobody has to be up particularly early on day two, yet when Elysium take to the stage the crowd is still fairly thin in numbers. This doesn’t stop the Mercian melodeath/groove metal newcomers from delivering a lively set from their EP Final Theosis, packed with enthusiasm and a host of songs that are accentuated by their drummer’s strong performance. The great start to day two is continued with the appearance of Ravenage. The Yorkshire sextet are becoming quite well known in the metal world thanks to some prestigious festival slots, and clad in medieval outfits they take to the stage and deliver a lively performance that sees them playing songs taken from 2011’s Fresh From Fields of Victory. There doesn’t appear to be a single person in the room who is unaware of the band’s signature anthem, the crowd raising their pints and responding accordingly with shouts of “more beer!”
Welshmen Annwn have got everything going against them today (they’re short of two members and they’ve not played a gig in five years), yet all things considered they play a highly enjoyable set of wistful folk metal that only helps to highlight their true potential. With The Bearer and The Dreamer of Old Corpse Road valiantly stepping in to fill the vacant bass guitar and drummer slots respectively, Annwn’s temporary band members help to give the crowd a set that leaves us all wanting more, with Owain ap Arawn performing unplugged at times to flesh out the set. With new EP Idris Awaits now hot off the press, this certainly won’t be the last we hear from the Swansea four-piece. After a short break, Aklash are up; they are a last minute addition to the Warhorns line-up after a chance encounter with the organisers at another gig and their inclusion is most certainly a welcome one. Switching between his guitar and his violin, vocalist Nicholas Millar guides the band through forty minutes of atmospheric, doom-heavy black metal with a folk twist that earns them a fantastic reception and undoubtedly a host of new fans in the process.
Cnoc An Tursa’s arrival on stage is much anticipated thanks to 2013’s stunning début album The Giants of Auld and they certainly don’t disappoint. The crowd interaction remains minimal throughout, although letting the Scots’ bold and brazen blend of black and folk metal speak for itself merely fortifies the strength of the songs as they play through the likes of the brilliant ‘The Lion of Scotland’. The riffs dominate and the melodies enthral, and with new vocalist Scott Anderson having recently left the band, it falls to Alan Buchan to step up and give the crowd a set that proves to be a definite festival highlight.
With vocalist Luk Hass announcing on-stage that this will be Cryptic Forest’s last gig for a while (probably due to the majority of the band also being members of Finsterforst and himself wanting to concentrate on his other black metal project Kâhld), the German melodic black metallers are on fire tonight as they plough through songs taken from their excellent album Ystyr, with the appreciative crowd showing their support throughout. Ending with ‘Creatures of the Dark’ — the epic nine minute finale from Ystyr — the band leave the stage for a short respite to make way for Firtan – a band who also hail from Cryptic Forest’s home city of Lörrach. This being their first ever gig in the UK, Firtan seem incredibly appreciative of the strong reception they receive. Showing off tracks from their impressive 2014 début Niedergang, the pagan black metal quintet may have been a relatively unknown entity before now, but this set undoubtedly earns them a host of new fans as they tear through a tight set that highlights their musicianship as well as their songwriting skills; the melodicism and extremity battle each other for supremacy but ultimately they complement each other perfectly.
One of the most anticipated bands of the weekend, Finsterforst come on stage suitably attired, with all seven members somehow finding a space on the modest stage before launching into a lengthy set that spans their entire career. Their style has changed somewhat over the years from their early days of fast-paced, accordion-fuelled folk metal through to the grand bombastic pomp of 2015 release Mach Dich Frei, the Germans are a whirlwind of energy as Johannes Joseph’s accordion leads the raucous party amidst Olli Berlin’s dominating growls. The keyboard effects are plentiful without feeling over indulgent, and with plenty of older material played as well as new songs ‘Zeit für Hass’ and ‘Mach Dich Frei!’, their set is laden with grandiose, roaring heavy metal and a hunger within each and every member of the band that makes Finsterforst’s music compelling, inspiring and utterly absorbing.
With only the headliners left to play, England’s own folk metal pioneers Skyclad may be a step down from the extremity of many of today’s bands, but the atmosphere within the venue by no means dissipates. If anything, the crowd have saved a last burst of energy for the final band of the festival, and the Geordie troupe are more than happy to oblige. Fiddle player George Biddle is a wave of positive energy as she dances around the stage injecting the band’s trademark folk melody to the likes of ‘Another Fine Mess’ and ‘Another Drinking Song’. Frontman Kevin Ridley wears a constant grin throughout, proclaiming that he doesn’t much like the term ‘folk metal’ and would rather Skyclad be known as a ‘happy doom band’, before launching into an incredibly happy doom song in the form of ‘The Song of No Involvement’. Their set spans multiple periods in their career as they play through band classics ‘The Parliament of Fools’ (2004), ‘The Declaration of Indifference’ (1992) and ‘Inequality Street’ (1996); the latter met with a request for a ‘jig pit’ from Kevin, who doesn’t want the band’s lack of extremity to be any reason for the crowd not to get involved. Ending on a cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Emerald’, Skyclad leave to a raucous reception before the party continues well into the night.
It is testament to the organisers that Warhorns 2015 goes off without a hitch. Despite losing a handful of bands from the original line-up (some at very short notice) the festival feels like it is moving in the right direction, and with so many like-minded bands and fans joining together for a celebration of folk and Viking metal in all their forms, long may it continue.