The first day of Hammerheart Ostarablot brought some incredible performances with it, and I knew that its second day had just as much for me to look forward to. This Saturday night featured sets from Vemod, Alda, Vukari, Woman Is the Earth, and Blood and Sun, making it another lineup where any band in particular would be worth seeing on their own and having the chance to see them all in a row was something special. While a plan to check out Hammerheart’s taproom was derailed by a much needed recovery period throughout the day Saturday (I very clearly ignored what I mentioned about pacing with Hammerheart’s higher ABV beers in my review of day one), I was reenergized and ready to go by the time doors opened at Triple Rock Social Club.
Blood and Sun started off the night’s festivities, and I couldn’t think of a better fit for Ostarablot. Like Wyrding the night before, this was a mellower performance compared to the rest of the bands that were still to come but was a perfect fit stylistically. Blood and Sun started off as a project based out of Minneapolis, but band leader Luke Tromiczak now resides in NYC and other members have relocated to other areas, so this seemed like a homecoming set of sorts and the venue was already packed even though they were the first group to take the stage. They definitely deserve this fan-fare though, as the lengthy set that covered a significant amount of ‘White Storms Fall’ and some other songs from their discography remained engaging throughout. Stylistically this band channels some of the best neofolk I’ve heard in recent memory, though they’d tell you they prefer the term heathen folk. Acts like Death in June and Sol Invictus would be good reference points, as there’s a similarity to the sweeping instrumentation and thought provoking lyrics that Blood and Sun’s able to provide. Each song was absolutely stunning, and all of the instruments worked in tandem to create a sound that makes you like you’re taking in the very spirit of the Minnesota wilderness and age old traditions. Tromiczak’s voice is just as strong on-stage, with the lower grit of his voice proving to be even more captivating than on-record. If you’re a fan of any of the neofolk and dark folk acts out there, Blood and Sun is worth catching as they encapsulate everything that’s appealing about these genres and make you feel like you’re watching musicians recite folk hymns and stories around a campfire rather than in a crowded venue.
Up next was South Dakota‘s Woman Is the Earth, the other band besides Falls of Rauros that was a repeat from Hammerheart’s first festival at the end of 2014. It made sense for them to return though, as not only was their particular take on atmospheric black metal a perfect warm-up for Vemod later in the evening, but it gave attendees a sneak peek at their upcoming full length ‘Torch of Our Final Night’ which Init Records had on-sale early at the fest. I forget how I first found out about this group and their material, but it was sometime between the original release and reissue of their second album ‘This Place That Contains My Spirit’. I found their soaring melodies and abrasive textures to be just as strong as any of the other atmospheric black metal bands from the U.S., and was excited to have the opportunity to see them live. Woman Is the Earth surpassed my expectations with a set that was breathtaking from beginning to end. Their particular sound may not stray that far from what many have dubbed the “Cascadian black metal” style over the years, and while they have a similar emphasis on soaring instrumentals that have an abrasive edge but wrap you in a warm embrace these guys have the songwriting ability to stand out. This comes through perfectly in their live set, as the layers wash over you and Jarrod Hattervig’s screams just barely hover over the surface with a specter-like presence. The new songs sounded fantastic and if you closed your eyes you felt like you were drawn right into the landscape of South Dakota. Sometimes bands of this type don’t fully translate over live, but that wasn’t the case here as Woman Is the Earth proved to be even more breathtaking and intense on-stage.
Chicago’s Vukari started shortly after Woman Is the Earth had finished playing, and they were the one band from Saturday’s performance that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to the fest. Once their set started it was clear that I’ve been missing out for the past few years, as their combination of black metal and post rock style melodies proved to be quite enjoyable and a great follow-up to the two bands that had preceded them. Like Woman Is the Earth, Vukari have an album coming out in the near future so their set gave the audience a chance to become familiar with new material as well as songs from their previous two releases. With plenty of sweeping melodies that enveloped you as you watched them on-stage and harsher vocals that stuck around the lower ranges but managed to avoid getting washed out in the mix, the band flew through a set that seemed like it ended far too quickly. What stood out to me on Saturday’s performance was that each of the four black metal bands fell into what one might consider to be “atmospheric black metal”, but neither of them sounded anything alike. Vukari’s transition over to softer post rock style sections and lengthy build-up to intense climaxes felt genuinely different, and left a strong impression on me even after they had finished playing. I once again have to commend whoever was behind the soundboards for the sets, as they were able to have all of the bands sounding as well balanced as possible and it definitely worked to Vukari’s advantage.
Hammerheart Ostarablot offered me a rare chance to see Tacoma, Washington’s Alda, who have tended to tour around the West Coast and as far as I know haven’t really made it out to my general vicinity in the nine years they’ve been in existence. Last year Alda released their third full length ‘Passage’ on Bindrune Recordings, and it saw them continue to push the boundaries of folk and atmospheric leaning black metal further than before. I had forgotten that drummer Michael Korchonnoff also handled all of the vocal work, and he is able to do both simultaneously live. I’m always impressed with bands that go for this type of setup, as Absu and some of the others out there have proven that you can have a drummer/vocalist combo be just as intense as having a singer up at the front of the stage. That was definitely the case with this performance, as Korchonnoff didn’t miss a beat while delivering some harsh screams that cut through the sound and seemed to hover over everyone in the audience. Alda’s other members also have great chemistry, as the set was delivered with a sense of precision that showcased how long they’ve been playing with each other and it was great to see that they all seemed to be vibing off of the energy they were creating on-stage. From beginning to end I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage, and the rest of the audience seemed to feel the same way as they began chanting for an encore once the band had finished playing. While that didn’t happen, probably because most of the group’s songs are ten minutes or longer, the songs they did play are still lingering in my memory a week later. If you have yet to hear them and like any of the atmospheric or folk oriented black metal bands, you need to go check out either ‘Passage’ or ‘Tahoma’ immediately.
I was able to catch Vemod’s first ever North American show as part of Messe des Morts in Montreal in November, and walked away thinking it was one of the best sets I had seen in 2015. There’s something about the mystical, otherworldly melodies that Vemod is able to channel alongside the raw black metal that makes them so hypnotizing, and I didn’t want to miss being able to see it again only a few months later. Messe des Morts may have been their first North American performance, but Ostarablot was the first time the band was able to perform in the U.S. and this likely gave a whole new audience a chance to experience their live performance. From what I remembered, it seemed like it was the same set they had played before but that didn’t make it any less captivating. J.E. Åsli took the stage holding a key, as if he wanted to offer the audience a chance to unlock the keys to the stars and Northern lights that were on display on the screen behind the band. From there Vemod launched right into their performance, letting their arrangements completely soar over your head while E. Blix’s vocals commanded your attention. Lengthy, sprawling songs were complemented by ambient breaks and towards the end of the set J.E. Åsli showcased some stunning chants/clean vocal work that gave a slight reprieve from the intensity of the set. My favorite moment of their set is still Ikledd evighetens kappe, as the guitar work is even more prominent live and is so powerful that it makes you forget you’re watching this in a crowd and it seems like the band is playing to just you. I also want to mention the performance of live drummer Cameron Warrack, who also plays in Toronto black metal band Sortilegia, as he’s able to keep up with the rest of the band and is a natural fit for their live performances. Overall, Vemod was just as good a second time and puts on a live set that’s hard to match.
Hammerheart Ostarablot seemed like it was over far too quickly, with sets from all ten bands flying by in the blink of an eye. It certainly helped that there wasn’t a single boring moment to be had, and each group was a perfect fit. The people I met in Minneapolis were friendly, the beer was delicious, and it was a great time overall. I’m not sure if Hammerheart is planning on doing festivals annually or only when high quality lineups are able to be put together, but I will definitely be back for another.