Concert Review - Finntroll, Blackguard

It was a strange night to be in Worcester, Massachusetts. Stranger than usual, that is. At the Palladium, the city’s cardinal music showcase, two very different forces were converging on the city. Finntroll was in town with Blackguard in tow, a powerful double bill of folky heavy metal. On the same night, in another part of the same venue, was a foam party. As one can imagine, this made for excellent people watching, as there were booty shorts, furry footwear and studded belts as far as the eye could see. The two crowds eyed each other with equal mistrust and disdain and the showdown was on.

We’ve talked a lot about Blackguard on these pages, so attentive readers have no doubt tracked the band’s progress, as I’ve now seen them four times in less than two years. It’s been a rare chance to see a group of artists evolve in something resembling real-time through two album cycles and now the beginning of a third.

The common theme of previous Blackguard shows is that the band walks in unknown, but walks away having won the crowd over. This night was different from the very first strains of “Rise.” As the band emerged, the assembled masses were already in full-throated support, greeting the Canadians with a loud cheer.

Blackguard remains anchored by three fixtures: stone-faced guitarist Terry Deschenes, a stalwart presence on the wing of the stage, drummer Justine Ethier, the hardest working woman in metal who makes the thunder of “Wasteland” a physical experience and the centerpiece of the maelstrom, vocalist and high-caliber showman Paul Ablaze. Not only could you plug Ablaze in and power half of the city of Hartford, but his composure onstage in unflappable and in its own way, eminently professional. Every crowd surfer serves not as an annoyance, but as a new head-banging partner and technical problems with microphones become new excuses to jump into the fans’ arms and keep the show moving. Ablaze has no idle moments, screaming through old (personal) favorites like “In Time” and “This Round’s on Me.”

The star of the set though, were the two selections from the band’s forthcoming record “Storm.” “The Dying Season” and “Northern Storm” both crackle with electricity and Blackguard’s personality. Even if they are just a glimpse of the album’s construction, they flash the limitless possibility of what the record may be, combining the flair of “Profugus Mortis” with the strength of “Firefight.” The battle already won and the set concluded, Blackguard left the stage as the crowd chanted for more. Anticipation for “Storm,” due sometime in 2014, is higher than ever.

Watching Finntroll come to the stage with costume ears but otherwise dressed normally seems like the biggest no-sell in live performance, particularly in light of the group’s otherwise normal stage show. But then the analytic mind starts to wonder if that’s not the point; if the trolls of myth and legend really existed in the modern world and were in a band, isn’t it fair to assume they would dress as everyone else does?

That said, there is a sense of whimsy that permeates the set of Finntroll, the very same that characterizes their music. Each band member is alive and energetic and all seem to be enjoying their time on stage interacting with the audience. Even drummer Samu "Beast Dominator" Ruotsalainen, barely visible behind a forest of cymbals, expresses himself by hitting his drum heads in metronomic fashion.

For all the fan favorites in their lengthy catalogue, the emphasis on this night was on new album “Blodsvept.” The album has been the subject of almost unilaterally good reviews (including one on this site,) so it shouldn’t surprise that Finntroll wants to focus there. They came out swinging and dancing with new tracks like the title cut and a particularly bouncy “Mordminnen,” keeping the mood high as the packed patrons movement kept the club’s temperature high.

Of note is keyboardist Aleksi "Virta" Virta, who plays with seemingly gentle hands, making surehis placement is nigh perfect. It’s far too easy to find metal keyboardists who band away with reckless fervor and in the face of that, Virta’s meticulousness suggests he’s actually making music, not merely playing it. His melodic lines carry much of the band’s band’s baseline melody and even when engaged in starting contests with other band members, his playing remains acutely in step.

There were some old favorites like “En Maktig Har” and “Svartberg” (forgive my lack of umlauts,) which roused the masses into a fever pitch, but Finntroll by and large continued to push “Blodsvept,” visiting again later in the set for “Skogsdotter” to help round out the set. What’s worth mentioning is that the old tunes mesh seamlessly with the new, which suggests a high level of consistency both in the studio and on stage for the professional musicians of Finntroll. Each piece was performed with the same level of passion and talent, accompanied by the easy-going attitude of the band.

In a different life, perhaps I would’ve chosen the foam party for my evening’s entertainment. Watching three hundred of my closest strangers headbang, dance and generally carouse in unison though, is a feeling of belonging not quite like many others. I didn’t want to be anywhere else but where I was. This is a great tour that’s not to be missed.

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