The evening’s conflict had already been constructed before the first fan ever walked through the door. Paganfest 2012 was a tour set on answering a variation of the usual internet quandary concerning pirates and ninjas (on which my pro-ninja stance has been well documented.) Rather, the task for the evening was to settle the erstwhile grudge match between the two groups that were hosting the entire event. Who is superior? Pirates….or Vikings?
Let it be said that I have before lauded the excellent accommodations at the Palladium in Worcester, Massachusetts. Their downstairs hall rivals most mid-sized theatres for spaciousness, vision lanes and sound reproduction. It is a beautiful facility, and a fantastic place to see a show. Turisas, Alestorm, Arkona, and all the other evening’s bands however, were being asked to play in the cramped, inadequate upstairs portion of the building. As patrons entered the arena for the upcoming fray (and the show did sell out, I’m pleased to announce,) the narrow hall became claustrophobic. Poor sight lanes, awful lighting and noisy sound did nothing to help the aesthetic. I heard several patrons talking to each other say things like “Are we trying to talk ourselves into leaving?” and the more pedestrian “This sucks.” After several recurrent problems with mic feedback, I may or may not have yelled to my wife “Come on, Pookie! Let’s burn this motherf*cker down!” The entire experience was akin to seeing the show inside a pirate ship, or a Viking longboat, now that I think about it.
Regardless, the meat of the evening began with a performance from Russian pagan group Arkona. It’s a shame that the sound for this band was so poor, as they rumbled on stage with virility and power, surging through each moment of their set, sultry frontwoman Maria "Masha Scream" Arkhipova howling and raging with each selection. Vladimir “Volk” pushed as much sound through various wind instruments as he could, and in the sections where he was audible above the din, whipped the crowd into a responsive, cooperative frenzy.
Speaking of, the crowd on this night was a willing accomplice to the chaos on stage, looking to unwind on a tepid March night and wild-eyed with anticipation to do it. They came dressed in costumes, some simple, others elaborate, cheered with full throat, clapped on command, sang with fervor and moshed with heart, shaking the walls of the capsule that held us all. It was enough to make any observer believe that it was possible for folk metal to catch on in America.
The pirates took their biggest swing next, with Alestorm ascending the (noticeably short) small stage and bringing their guns to bear, so to speak. Their first broadside hit the crowd hard with “Shipwrecked,” a crunchy, rumbling piece that instantly rallied the weary fans into attention. It was one of the band’s signature pieces of the evening, and opened the portal for them to wander through a vast array of tunes, from “Black Sails at Midnight” to “Rum.” Whether crushing the crowd in the breakdown or shredding through some punk-influenced material, Christopher Bowes was a composed and capable frontman, exhorting the crowd when needed, and relying on his band members to help convey the party atmosphere. The band’s keys were front and center in the mix, laying down the jovial foundation upon which all of their “pirate core” is based, and helping push songs like “Keelhauled.” But was it enough to hold off the Viking horde of Turisas?
Undaunted by the prospect of being asked to essentially tap-dance on a postage stamp, Mathias Nygard and his red-faced, black-striped band mates dominated the evening’s proceedings more than any other act previously. Full to the brim with stage presence and command of the audience, Turisas came to the fore and made their statement with an opening “March of the Varangian Guard.”
As they pushed on into “Take the Day!” special credit must be given to violinist Olli Vanska, who truly owned the stage and the set. A virtuoso on the electric violin, Vanska ripped through all the band’s solos for the night, adjusting his sound as necessary to fit into the music.
All six members of Turisas brought their A game to the stage, culminating in a full sound that exemplified the band’s reputation for “big” moments. I admit I was not expecting the band to attempt some of their more epic pieces that were recorded with the assistance of a full choir, but Turisas was not intimidated by their stage limitations and excellently reproduced both (personal favorite) “The Great Escape” and the titanic metal opera “End of an Empire.” These moments are where Turisas stands out not just from the other capable bands that are part of Paganfest, but all the other names in the genre.
Finishing the set (no pun intended,) Vansha led the band (and the crowd,) through an incredible double-timed “Sahti-Waari,” transporting everyone in the building for a few moments to some long-gone, mead-soaked Viking hall. As if that weren’t enough, the band capitalized on the momentum coming into the encore with a natural selection of “Hunting Pirates,” and a tremendous, crowd-charging “Battle Metal.”
The element of Turisas’ set that most sticks in the brain however, is how much they appeared to enjoy being on stage. Whether breaking into an impromptu bluegrass romp, ranting about the quality (or lack thereof) of American beer, or just plain playing their songs, no one seemed to be having more fun during Turisas’ show than Turisas. They owned the show. Vikings 1, Pirates 0.