Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse is a festival I’ve wanted to attend for a few years now, but 2016 marked the first time that it worked out schedule and budget wise. For those that might be unfamiliar with it, the festival has been bringing some of the best heavy metal to Chicago since 2011 alongside plenty of unexpected reunions and U.S. debuts for international bands. This year had Jag Panzer headlining the first night and Tygers of Pan Tang headlining the second night, with killer lineups leading up to these performances. Since there are so many bands that played and I was able to catch all of them except one, I’ll try to keep things brief. But know that even though I liked some groups more than others, there really wasn’t a bad one on the entire bill.
After meeting some new metalhead friends in the hotel I headed off to Reggie’s Rock Club for night one. This was my first time going to this club and I was impressed with its set-up, as it’s split into the large Rock Club stage and has a Music Joint stage next door which you can access through a long hallway and has a full kitchen and bar to keep metalheads fed during the 7-8 hours the festival runs for each day. I missed Damien Thorne on the main stage while I was checking out the Music Joint area and the merch, so the first band I was able to see was Gatekeeper.
This isn’t one of those festivals where you get there late to skip some random locals, as Gatekeeper came from Vancouver to kick things off. And what a great way to start off Ragnarökkr they proved to be. These guys come in somewhere between the epic heavy metal and doom end of the spectrum, with lengthy songs that move along at a slower pace and leave plenty of room for galloping guitar leads and solos. Though it seemed like the sound guy was still making some adjustments during the first song, by the time Gatekeeper was a little ways into their set everything sounded great and you could make out the booming vocals that reverberated over the entire crowd and the riffs that made me feel like the band was sending the crowd off to battle. Plus any band that throws fantasy books into the audience gets my seal of approval.
As Gatekeeper finished it was time to head over to the main stage for New York City’s Killen, who reunited last year after breaking up in 1990. Carl Canedy from The Rods joined this reunited version of the band on drums, but he was unable to make the performance so TC Tolliver from The Plasmatics filled in and was able to help bring the band’s classic heavy metal sound to life on-stage. With prominent bass lines and catchy guitar leads these guys had a lot to offer fans and newcomers alike, and while they didn’t play super-fast like some of the bands later in the evening the mid-tempo heavy metal had plenty of great riffs to make up for it. My only complaint would be that vocalist Vic Barron’s lower, snarly voice tended to get drowned out in the mix and some of the higher ranges seemed slightly stretched. But it was still an enjoyable set and worth coming in early in the evening to check out.
There was very little time to rest between bands, as the stage overlaps made it so a second stage group would be starting as the main stage one finished. I made my way back over to the second stage right as Riot City began, and was immediately blown away by how high energy their performance was. They’re one of the groups on the lineup I didn’t know a whole lot about, but these guys hail from Calgary in Canada and play high flying, fast paced heavy metal. The emphasis on speed and an insane level of energy reminded me of younger bands like Enforcer and Striker who take that classic sound and don’t let up until their set’s over, and Riot City’s worth being mentioned in the same breath as those two groups. Cale Savy’s soaring vocals were well balanced against the guitar and bass, and the audience seemed to be feeding off the energy coming from the stage. One of the surprises of the weekend, and a band you have to check out if you haven’t heard them yet.
Next up on the main stage was Austin’s Ignitor, a band I’ve wanted to see live for quite some time. I first came across their take on heavy/power metal with 2007’s ‘Road of Bones’, and since that time former Watchtower vocalist Jason McMaster has joined them and they’ve released three full lengths. Compared to some of the others out there, Ignitor’s riffing sometimes comes across as slightly more restrained and instead lets the vocals take much of the spotlight, but that’s what I like about them. The leads are catchy and gallop along at a steady pace, unleashing a soaring solo at just the right time. Plus McMaster’s an absolute monster when it comes to singing, as he is able to utilize so many different clean and harsher ranges that he’s always grabbing your attention. Almost ten years after I first heard them I had my first chance to see Ignitor on-stage, and they tore it up. Hopefully it won’t take nearly as long to see them again!
North Carolina’s Salvación was up next, and they were another group I was hearing for the first time. The second stage had already been leveled by Riot City, but I’d argue that these guys were able to pick up the pieces and set it ablaze all over again. What drew me into their set was the interplay between traditional heavy metal riffs and moments that had more of a hard rock vibe, which helped to set them apart in my mind from some of the other groups I saw throughout the weekend. Songs like Let Us Prey were a great example of this, and vocalist Elliot Madre has a great set of pipes that’s sure to remind you just as much of some of the great rock singers out there as it does heavy metal. Any group that can get some killer heavy metal licks alongside some straight up rock ‘n roll grooves has my attention, and Salvación fit that perfectly.
War Cry was the next of the reunited bands to play the main stage, and even if you haven’t heard them before you might have seen the name. They were on the Metal Massacre 4 sampler and had Paul Speckmann (Master, Death Strike) at one point before ultimately breaking up in 1984, becoming a group that most people probably would have never expected to see on-stage some thirty plus years later. These days War Cry is original singer Rich Rozek and members of Tyrant’s Reign, and their Ragnarökkr set showcased a band that still has plenty of life left in it. Though Rozek might be the only one left from the recorded material, the rest of the members delivered such a tightly played set that you wouldn’t know it. There were plenty of headbang worthy riffs, and unlike some of the other groups that have played reunion shows some thirty plus years later Rozek’s still able to make the most of his vocal range. It’s great to see them back in action, and perhaps more live shows will come about in the future for those that weren’t able to make it out to Chicago.
Vermont’s Chalice had been chosen to headline the second stage, and this gave them plenty of time to play through all their material. Though I had to split my time between their set and Ambush on the main stage, I was able to watch the first few songs and then head back to catch the end of the performance and everything I heard sounded fantastic. Chalice has that perfect balance of faster heavy metal licks and traditional doom, with the longer songs adopting the type of adventurous slow paced riffing that feels like it’s sending you off on a journey into lands unknown. But perhaps the element of the band’s music that stands out the most is the vocal work of Hagthorn, whose main pitch is a lower, gruffer one that sometimes reminded me of Annick from Cauchemar but heads off in its own direction. Despite being one of the newer groups on the festival, it was clear why they were chosen to finish off the second stage on Friday and those in the audience seemed to be vibing off their material.
I’m not sure how Ragnarökkr managed this one, but shortly after Scanner had to drop off due to visa issues they announced Ambush would be joining the lineup for their first U.S. show ever. Sweden’s no strange to great heavy metal, and often has bands that don’t just nail the sound of classic 80’s heavy metal but also look the part. This was definitely the case with Ambush, and their performance looked to be one of the more anticipated of the evening as the main stage had gotten pretty crowded. Their material sometimes skews a bit more towards the glam side of heavy metal, with mid-tempo rock ‘n roll riffs and syncopated movement from the two guitarists and bassists. But they make it work to their advantage, and they’ve got the soaring voice of Oskar Jacobsson to lead the way. Quite a few of Ambush’s songs are oriented around Jacobsson heading into some upper registers and grabbing your attention while the other three members provide back-ups, and it sounded even better live. If you’re a fan of traditional heavy metal, glam rock, and everything in between, check these guys out.
The reason that I found out about Ashbury was because of their previous performance at Ragnarökkr, which generated quite a bit of buzz for some time afterwards. For those who might not have come across the Arizona band yet, they released ‘Endless Skies’ in 1983 before disappearing for almost three decades. That particular album took elements of southern and folk rock and put a mysterious, fantasy spin on it with soaring melodies and softer vocals that felt like they had the ability to take you to sweep you away to another world. So I definitely had some lofty expectations going in to the performance, but all it took was one song to completely blow all of those away. Though Ashbury might have arguably been the mellowest band to perform all weekend, there was a mystical energy that swept over you as the soaring melodies and hard rock grooves blared out of the PA. Rob Davis’s softer voice hasn’t aged a bit, and the sound was mixed perfectly so that his singing seemed to hover just over top of the rest of the band. They added in a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper alongside just about every original song I wanted to hear, and it was fantastic from beginning to end. You may have seen this name pop up on the Psycho Las Vegas lineup and been unsure of who they were, but do yourself a favor and give ‘Endless Skies’ a listen and you’ll likely end up anticipating their live performance just as much as I had.
Ashbury may have blown me away, but the night was far from over as U.S. heavy/power metal legends Jag Panzer were headlining the first night. Even though I had already seen nine other bands and was starting to feel it, Jag Panzer brought me right back to life with their intensity and Harry Conklin’s over the top vocal performance. This was a lengthy set that had a little bit of everything to offer, but what likely pleased everyone in the audience was the noticeable emphasis on 1984’s ‘Ample Destruction’. The band is in perfect form, capable of delivering these razor sharp riffs in a way that makes it look super easy. Plus I don’t think Harry Conklin’s capable of aging in the slightest, as not only does he transition between those lower ranges and impossibly high falsettos with seemingly no effort but his stage presence commanded your full attention. There was lots of back and forth banter with the crowd, and you could tell that the entire band was having a lot of fun flying through one killer slab of heavy metal after the next. It’s impressive when a long-running act like this is able to run through a lengthy set and not lose one bit of intensity from beginning to end. Jag Panzer lived up to their headlining spot and is still one of the best bands of this type you’ll see on-stage.