North America seems to be in something of a festival boom right now. While there have been long running festivals like Maryland Deathfest and now defunct events such as Milwaukee Metal Fest, the past few years have seen more and more options for people around the continent to attend. The next couple months alone have multiple festivals to choose from, and the most recent one to grab my attention was Hammerheart Ostarablot at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis. This is the second festival held by Hammerheart Brewing Company, which is based out on Lino Lakes and was co-founded by Austin Lunn from Panopticon. I missed the first one at the end of 2014, which featured performances from Wodensthrone and Obsidian Tongue, but knew I couldn’t make the same mistake again for this expanded two day event. Ostarablot had five bands playing each day with a lineup that went for quality over quantity, and its first day had performances from Wyrding, Wilt, Obsequiae, Waldgeflüster, and Falls of Rauros.
Before I talk about the bands that played on the first night, it’s worth mentioning the beer. Getting a chance to sample a whole slew of Hammerheart Brewing’s beer was definitely part of the appeal of Ostarablot, and probably the best chance people like me from the East Coast have to taste it as the brewery doesn’t currently offer their beers outside of the taproom. Their name comes from the classic Bathory album, and all the beers that they brew are inspired by Norse and Celtic mythology with a healthy dose of heavy metal influences. The taps they took over at the venue had a wide selection of beers, including the Flaming Longship scotch ale and the Gorm the Old mesquite smoked ale. There were quite a few tasty brews available throughout the weekend! I tried everything available and found each one to be just as flavorful and satisfying at the last, though at an average of 6.5-7% ABV a piece some careful pacing was definitely required. Hammerheart had brewed a special barrel aged juniper pale ale called Nordlys to celebrate Vemod’s first U.S performance that was set for Saturday, but it ended up only being available to VIP pass holders and those that could make it to the taproom. I think a trip over to Lino Lakes needs to be in the schedule next time I make it back to the Minneapolis area!
The doors opened about half an hour late on the first night, as it seemed that plenty of extra time had been spent sound checking. But I couldn’t complain once the music started, as aside from this initial delay at the beginning of the festival everything ran smoothly and all of the sets had great sound without any major issues. The Triple Rock Social Club is a great place to hold this type of event, as it can fit a decent amount of people and two steps separate the stage area from the bar and merch. Ostarablot had plenty of merchandise on-hand, and Eroding Winds Distro (Gilead Media), Init Records, Bindrune Recordings, and Nordvis Produktion all had tables overflowing with music.
Wisconsin’s Wyrding kicked off the evening, and they were the band on Friday’s lineup that I knew the least about. Their set kicked things off on a softer note, but the first song made it clear they were a great fit for this particular type of festival. The band categorizes their sound as melodic funeral doom, and this seems like an appropriate description. While they’re not as overwhelmingly heavy as one might associate with funeral doom, the haunting guitar and keyboard melodies have a similar feel that’s just as absorbing. It was the type of performance that really drew you in as you watched the band on-stage, as even though the instrumentals often went into somber, melancholic territory the way that it was delivered felt very calm and relaxing. But while the instrumental work definitely caught my attention with its shimmering guitar leads, what hooked me the most was the vocal work. Lead singer Troy has a deep voice that booms over top of the rest of the band and comes off sounding somewhere between Peter Steele, quite a few of the gothic and neofolk singers out there, and a bass opera singer. It’s a stunning combination, as he is able to reach these deeper ranges that really draw out the emotions and textures from the instrumentals. Admittedly there were a few hiccups in the set, as some of the transitions between songs were a bit abrupt and it did sometimes give a bit of a rough around the edges feel to the performance. But that ultimately didn’t matter, as once Wyrding got in the zone their ethereal qualities made me forget I was in a festival surrounded by a crowd of people. Fans of everything from funeral doom to neofolk should check these guys out, as their sound is different enough to make an impression and I’ve had their self-titled album on rotation since I got back from Minnesota.
Up next was the first international band on the lineup, Wilt from Winnipeg Canada. Another great fit for Hammerheart Ostarablot, Wilt plays atmospheric black metal that moves along at a slower pace and incorporates softer sections that have a bit of doom influence. Right from the start of their set the volume went up a notch from Wyrding’s performance, flooding the entire room in warmer tonality and the harsh screams of singer Jordan Dorge. All of Wilt’s songs run fairly long, typically spanning past the ten minute mark, but unlike some of the other bands that go for this type of lengthy, epic black metal these guys are able to maintain your attention for the entirety of each song. With natural ebbs and flows between harsher moments and soft, sweeping atmospherics that sucked you in, the set never hit any boring patches and the rest of the audience around me looked as though they felt the same way. The interplay between the melodic guitar leads and Dorge’s abrasive screams that cut through the rest of the sound and sent chills down my spine during some of the rawest moments made a big impression, and it also helped that Wilt was able to deliver a tight and cohesive set. That’s definitely a notable achievement for a group that started off as a duo on their self-titled EP back in 2012, as you wouldn’t know the other three guys hadn’t been with them from the beginning watching this performance. Last year’s ‘Moving Monoliths’ album is a release I didn’t have the chance to spend that much time with, but after having the chance to hear the material wash over me and feeling fully tuned in to the rawer emotions and warm atmosphere on display it’s clear I’ll have to properly check it out.
The lineup on the Ostarablot event page said that Waldgeflüster would play next, but the order ended up being switched around and instead it was time for Obsequiae to take the stage. Though band leader Tanner Anderson is from Minneapolis, live appearances from this band are fairly rare and a proper lineup that could handle live sets only came together last year. The question was, could this lineup take the stunning melodies and standout riffs from the group’s two full lengths and deliver them to a packed house at Ostarablot? One minute into the set the answer became a resounding yes, as jaws were on the floor right from the start. Even with the immense amount on talent on display throughout both days, Obsequiae stood out as the highlight of the festival for me and both the band on stage and audience members seemed to be at their most energetic level during this set. The twisting and turning riffs that were so engaging on ‘Suspended in the Brume of Eos’ and ‘Aria of Vernal Tombs’ came through crystal clear, and watching each member fly through these soaring riffs I noticed that they made it look easy. Obsequiae incorporates a lot of medieval elements into their songwriting, with guitar leads that make it sound like they’re preparing the listener to head off into battle, and when you put that into a live performance it really amps up the crowd. I would’ve been happy just to focus on riff after riff throughout the course of the set, but the vocals are what really put this set over the top and made it my favorite of the weekend. The intensity of the screaming never wavered, and rather than being slightly buried in the mix the vocals were front and center and displayed a commanding presence that made you unable to tear yourself away from what was happening on-stage. Obsequiae’s particular take on melodic black metal has always stood out as unique, and to see them fully transform from a strong studio project into a stunning live band is very exciting. Hopefully more performances aren’t too far off so that more people can experience just how much energy these guys can bring to the table.
Hammerheart Ostarablot was Waldgeflüster’s first show in the U.S., and it made a lot of sense for this to be the place for it to happen considering that band founder Winterherz and Austin Lunn have known each other for a bit now and a split with Panopticon had just been released. Waldgeflüster was a solo project for the first nine years of its existence before becoming a full band in 2014, and this was yet another example where if you didn’t know that fact prior to watching the set you would’ve thought that all of these guys have been playing together since the beginning. The chemistry between each member is apparent, as they’ve taken the material from across the band’s discography and been able to really bring it to life on-stage. What I like so much about Waldgeflüster is they have that perfect balance of atmospheric black metal that blasts you with colder riffs and softer, warm moments that have more of a pagan/folk feel. This is accomplished not only through regular changeovers between harsh and mellow instrumentation, but also through Winterherz and the other members’ vocals which alternate between abrasive screams and somber clean singing. These elements sound even better than on record, and I was very pleased to find that the singing doesn’t lose any of its grit outside of the albums; there are definitely no fancy studio tricks at work enhancing the vocals on the recorded output as they are all perfectly replicated live. As with the rest of the lineup on Friday, almost all of the songs that made up this set skewed toward the long side but Waldgeflüster never lost steam and the crowd seemed thoroughly into it the whole time. The group chose to end their set with Der Traumschänder from their recent split with Panopticon, and during the last verse Austin Lunn joined them on-stage to scream alongside Winterherz. It was a great moment and a perfect way to end their first U.S. performance.
The venue had cleared out a bit by the time Falls of Rauros went on, which I thought was a bit disappointing. Sure, it was late into the night and the majority of the other bands had already played for forty five minutes to an hour, but come on, these guys are worth sticking around for! Those of us that stuck around were ready to vibe off of the almost overwhelming display of soaring black metal riffs and harsh, biting vocals on display. I had seen the Portland, Maine band play on the main stage at Shadow Woods Metal Fest last September, and watching the band surrounded by trees made the set that much more stunning. Make no mistake though; Falls of Rauros is capable of completely pulling you in to their live performance no matter the location as this particular set lived up to my previous experience. They pulled from a decent amount of their discography, playing some of the atmospheric black metal meets post rock songs off their newest record ‘Believe in No Coming Shore’ and even diving back into some material from the first demo that came out back in 2005. Every moment sounded fantastic, and while Obsequiae may have ultimately stood out to me as the best band of the evening these guys came really close to matching that. Not only did the layers of guitar and bass come through crystal clear, sucking you in so that you often forgot you were standing in a concert venue alongside other metal heads, but the harsher vocal ranges came through perfectly as well and didn’t get lost in the mix. Watching these guys fly through their material with ease, it’s clear why they’ve become a well-known act amongst those who are into this particular type of black metal, and their live sets take the stunning amounts of energy and adventurous twists and turns of their instrumentation and really take things to the next level.
Ostarablot’s first day had five lengthy performances from bands that all offered slightly different sounds but complemented each other perfectly. Hammerheart’s decision to go with quality over quantity and give all of the groups time to play close to a headline or direct supporting slot length set proved to be a good one, and every band was able to capitalize on it. Any of these five would be worth seeing by themselves, and having them all together reinforced how great of a decision it was for me to fly out from the East Coast to experience this. Look for a review of Saturday’s show featuring Vemod, Alda, Vukari, Woman is the Earth, and Blood and Sun in the next day or two!