Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse

The first night of Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse went by in a blur, with so many quality sets and bands I didn’t think I’d ever be able to see.  Night two promised even more, with performances from Tygers of Pan Tang, Leather Leone, and Medieval Steel all highly anticipated by many of the festival goers.  What had initially been planned as a day to explore some more of Chicago was derailed by the South Loop Hotel being cleared out by a 4:30 AM fire alarm, so I spent much of the day vegged out in my hotel room until it was time to head back over to Reggies Rock Club.

Midnight Chaser

I didn’t want to miss any of the bands this time around, so I got there right on time to catch Midnight Chaser.  Odin, the organizer of the festival, had been talking up these guys a decent amount on social media and they definitely deserve it!  Originally based out of California, Midnight Chaser now calls Pittsburgh home and play heavy metal and hard rock that has a 70s slant to its writing style.  What that means is that when you see them on-stage, the riffs are high energy and filled with grooves that make you want to move around.  There were quite a few moments that reminded me of High Spirits, as both groups seem to be pulling from some similar influences.  Vocalist Josh Rodstein might be where I’m getting some of the High Spirits vibe from too, and his singing sounded great and was easy to make out over the rest of the band.  I imagine it’s not easy being the opening act on a festival like this, but Midnight Chaser kicked things off with one of the better sets of the day.

White Magician

Opening the second stage for the day was Detroit’s White Magician, a fairly new group that shares several members with Isenblåst and Demon Bitch.  Compared to Demon Bitch, White Magician goes for a slower, spacious sound that creates a dark and mysterious vibe.  There were moments that reminded me of both Manila Road and Mercyful Fate alongside some other groups, and that’s a combination that’s quite compelling.  Vocalist The Great Kaiser matches the emphasis on melody with a higher pitched voice that occasionally heads into falsetto range but generally sticks with a slightly mellower tone.  Though there were some elements to the performance that were a bit rough around the edges and the audience didn’t seem to know what to do with some of the slightly awkward stage banter between songs, it was still an  enjoyable one to watch and the darker, mysterious feel of the instrumentals was just what I was looking for.  I think White Magician’s going to be a band to keep an eye out for, as while they have room to progress and get tighter live they’re still off to a great start.

Impaler

Up next on the main stage was long running shock rock/speed metal band Impaler, another act that I had been really excited to come to the festival to see.  I’ve always been a fan of groups that go for the whole shock angle, whether it is originators of the style like Alice Cooper or those who weren’t far behind like Lizzy BordenImpaler’s from this same general time period, having originally formed in 1983, and just like when I saw Lizzy Borden a few years back they still know how to put on a hell of a show.  Musically they fall somewhere in between traditional rock ‘n roll, speed metal, and punk, and that means there are plenty of opportunities for some killer riffs alongside the gruffer vocals of Bill Lindsey and the stage show.  Lindsey did a fantastic job of working the crowd, and whether chewing on a severed head or waving a flag he knew how to grab your attention with some classic shock and sleaze.  Add in a tribute to Lemmy with an Ace of Spades cover, and you have a set that made an impact even fairly early in the day.

Wulfhook

Back on the side stage was another band I was really looking forward to, Detroit’s Wülfhook.  Last year they released their debut full length ‘The Impaler’ on Divebomb Records, and it was easily one of my favorite heavy metal records in recent memory.  The riffs were razor sharp, and Jeff “Sling” Schlinz’s soaring falsettos were up there with some of the best.  My first thought before the set started was, can the vocals in a live setting match the pitches they reached on the recording?  It took all of 30 seconds to see that they can, as Schlinz sounds even better in person and he makes it look extremely easy.  The ease from which he can head from gruffer singing to super high falsettos rivals that of Harry Conklin, and considering both Jag Panzer and Satan’s Host played this same weekend that’s saying something.  Wülfhooks instrumentalists are no slouches either, and they delivered a tightly constructed set that was high energy from beginning to end and had the crowd going wild. Highly recommended.

Lethal

Progressive/power metal band Lethal was the next group on the main stage.  The Kentucky based band originally formed in 1982, and their debut full length ‘Programmed’ came out on Metal Blade in 1990.  Like some of the others on the Ragnarökkr lineup they broke up for a while and even after reuniting live shows have been fairly rare, so this was a great chance for fans to have a chance to see the group on-stage.  And nearly thirty years after their first demo they still sound great.  Lethal has a lot of elements that are sure to remind listeners of Queensrÿche, though they have plenty of their own nuances.  It’s reminiscent of a time when a heavy/power metal band could write some sweeping melodies without having to resort to cheesier symphonic elements.  The instrumental work sounded great, with just the right mix of soaring melodies and heavier grooves, and singer Tom Mallicoat still has all of his range.  It’s great to hear him hit those high notes after all this time, and while his banter in between songs was completely incomprehensible and bizarre, I can’t complain when his performance was so on point.

Old Wolf

Back on the second stage it was time for another band from Kentucky, though Old Wolf is much newer than Lethal.  Their self-titled demo came out last year, and while I’m not sure exactly how long they’ve been playing together their set sounded a bit more polished than is typical for a group with only one release to their name.  With a healthy dose of Iron Maiden and NWOBHM influences on display, the band showcased the type of galloping riffing and high flying solos that one expect from this genre.  Their singer also has a decent amount of range he can work with, and while he can’t go quite as high as some of the others that were performing throughout the day he’s able to make the most of the pitches he can get to without stretching them too far.  It was another high energy performance, and while I did get the impression that there’s room for Old Wolf to grow and start to find their own nuances within the heavy metal world they’re off to a great start.

Spellcaster

Portland’s Spellcaster took over on the main stage, and I was excited to check them out.  Right after Ragnarökkr they left for a U.S. tour with Striker, but since that tour isn’t coming anywhere near my local markets I was happy to have the chance to see them.  Spellcaster’s supporting their upcoming full length ‘Night Hides the World’, and they used their set to give the audience a preview of some of the material alongside some old favorites.  Like Ambush from the night before, these guys play heavy metal that’s high energy and has plenty of squealing riffs alongside vocals that have equal parts heavy metal and rock influence.  The instrumentals sounded fantastic and Tyler Loney’s carries over well live, though I did find that his singing tended to get drowned out in the overall mix during certain points of the set.  This wasn’t that big of a deal overall, and Spellcaster was able to fly through some killer riffs and soaring solos while the crowd ate it up.  It did seem like it ended a bit too quickly, but maybe that’s just because I was digging the material so much.

Winterhawk

Rather than another second stage band starting right up after Spellcaster there was a short break, and then Chicago’s Winterhawk played the main stage.  This was a group that a younger metalhead like me wasn’t expecting to ever have the chance to see, so this rare opportunity was definitely one of the selling points for making the trip to Chicago.  Winterhawk skews more towards the rock side of the spectrum, with hard rock that has a very 70s feel to it alongside progressive instrumentation and extended jams.  Even thirty four years after ‘Revival’ first came out, these guys haven’t lost any of their chops and they sounded absolutely fantastic.  The way that the guitars and bass all play off of each other and lead into bluesy solos and extended jams was completely mesmerizing, and it was played with a precision that can sometimes be lacking with this type of rock.  Plus the vocals are no slouch either, delivering that type of sweeping melodic pitch that still manages to have a commanding presence.  Winterhawk may be a bit more towards the rock side of the spectrum like Ashbury, but there’s a lot of crossover appeal with the heavy metal crowd and if you haven’t heard these guys yet you should definitely give ‘Revival’ a listen.

Ordained Fate

During Winterhawk’s set Ordained Fate started on the second stage, and they were worth running over to go see.  Another band that had been broken up for quite some time, Ordained Fate released two albums between 1992 and 1995 before disappearing for almost two decades.  With lyrics themed around various aspects of Christianity and a sound that’s somewhere between thrash and power metal, they showcased the type of diversity that a festival like Ragnarökkr was able to offer.  Heavy metal certainly doesn’t have to be all about Satan and drinking after all, so I can appreciate stuff like this especially when it’s so catchy.  What stood out the most to me was how the members of Ordained Fate are able to fly through some intense thrash riffs and solos with the best of them, and a lot of their songs seemed oriented towards letting the guitars, bass, and drums rip through some fast, technical elements.  Singer Pam Scott’s lower, gravelly voice suits the band’s style perfectly, and I enjoyed their performance quite a bit.  I’m not sure how well known Ordained Fate’s material is, but if you’re a thrash fan they’re worth checking out.

Satan's Host

It was time for another dose of Harry Conklin courtesy of Satan’s Host, and after his absolutely stunning performance with Jag Panzer the night before I was ready for more.  The group’s come back in a big way since he joined in 2009, and last year they released two full length albums.  If you’ve yet to hear Satan’s Host, they play heavy/power metal that incorporates elements of first wave black metal for a sound that comes off feeling a bit different than what you might initially expect.  The abrasiveness of the black metal elements creates an interesting contrast with Conklin’s soaring falsettos and King Diamond style wails, and while admittedly some of the songs sometimes feel like the riffs take a back seat to the vocal performance there’s still a lot to like.  A good portion of the set seemed to focus on both of the ‘Pre-dating God’ albums, and it was another strong performance.  Admittedly it did get overshadowed a bit by Jag Panzer’s high flying set the night before, but the chance to see Conklin again in this different context was great and I hope to see Satan’s Host again soon.

Leather Leone

There had already been plenty of big name performances, but it was time for some of the most anticipated to take the stage, starting with Leather Leone.  Most of you are probably familiar with her work with Chastain, but if you’re like me you also spent a good deal of time with her solo album ‘Shock Waves’ from 1989.  This particular set helped to introduce her new solo band, which I believe came together sometime last year.  There was a heavy emphasis on Chastain songs throughout the performance, and since David Chastain isn’t interested in live performances this is as close as you’ll be able to get to hearing all of these classics live.  But I was happy to see there were some a handful of songs from ‘Shock Waves’ in the set as well.  Her voice still sounds fantastic, and Leather is able to deliver that powerful, booming voice that heads into some higher ranges.  There were a few rough patches here and there, but she nailed those high notes and had the entire crowd eating up every moment.  Her supporting bandmates did a great job too, and here’s hoping that more live performances are in the works.

HexenHammer

During Leather Leone’s performance HexenHammer’s headlining set on the second stage began, and it was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.  I knew very little about these guys prior to the festival, aside from the fact that they were another U.S. act that released some demos in the late 80s/early 90s and then disappeared for a couple decades.  As the second stage came into view, it became clear I was seeing something I wasn’t completely ready for.  Dressed in costumes, with one member adorned in full executioner’s garb, it was a spectacle to behold.  The music itself was thrash/speed metal with a very off-kilter feel, sometimes reminding me of Voivod while other moments gave off the weirdness of Primus.   There were plenty of slower, bass heavy grooves, and sudden transitions into faster passages where the tempo would kick up without any warning.  It was a complete sensory overload for me, and even two weeks later I’m not sure I’ve fully processed exactly what was happening on-stage, but I wouldn’t mind seeing its madness again.

Medieval Steel

Memphis’ Medieval Steel is another of the reunited American heavy metal bands that was a big draw for this year’s festival, and for good reason.  Their self-titled EP from 1984 has gained considerable praise from metalheads over the years, and with short-lived reunions in the decades that followed it didn’t seem like there would be a chance to see them on-stage.  But since 2012 the current version of Medieval Steel has been back in action and they were able to do the classic material justice alongside some newer material.  What most people probably want to know is how well Bobby Franklin’s voice has aged over the past three decades, and I was pleased to find that he’s able to hit those higher ranges with ease even after all of this time.  He has great stage presence and knows how to work the crowd, giving them plenty of opportunities to sing along to the songs from the EP.  If you have yet to hear Medieval Steel and like that type of mid-tempo, riff oriented heavy metal that sounds like it’s ready to send you off with sword in hand then you should definitely change that.  I’m not sure if more live performances are in the works or not, but with this current lineup able to deliver a killer set I hope that more people have the chance to see them.

Tygers of Pan Tang

Tygers of Pan Tang was one of the bands that was a part of the NWOBHM movement, and while they may not have gained as much exposure over here as Iron Maiden or Saxon they’ve remained a vital part of the genre.  Despite breaking up in 1987, in 1999 they reformed with original guitarist Robb Weir and have had a rotating cast of musicians in the years that followed.  But one consistent part of their current lineup is singer Jacopo Meille, whose soaring vocals on 2012’s ‘Ambush’ made it clear that Tygers of Pan Tang still have plenty to offer.  When you think about it, it’s pretty incredible that Ragnarökkr served as the band’s first ever U.S. performance, some 38 years after they formed.  This resulted in quite a bit of anticipation, which the group was able to live up to as soon as their set started.  There was a good deal of emphasis on classics from ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Crazy Nights’, with other songs from across their discography added in.  The level of energy on-stage was incredible, and Meille is a perfect front man for the band who is able to do the classics justice with his soaring voice.  Tygers of Pan Tang is able to strike that fine balance between NWOBHM and hard rock grooves, and it was a lot of fun watching them bring all of these songs to life.  Unfortunately I couldn’t stick around for the entire length of the set due to an early flight back to D.C. the next morning, but the half I was able to watch never wavered in its energy and it was on par with the other heavy metal greats I’ve seen in recent memory.

My first time at Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse was an extremely positive one, and it seemed like it was over in a blur.  There were so many outstanding performances, and even the bands that I thought were simply good were much better than what is on most other festivals.  Everything was tightly organized and there weren’t any long periods of downtime before bands, as you could go to either room at just about any time and watch someone play.  If you’re a fan of classic heavy metal and all the styles in between, this is a festival worth attending, and I plan to return.

Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse | Tygers of Pan Tang | Medieval Steel | HexenHammer | Leather Leone | Satan’s Host | Ordained Fate | Winterhawk | Spellcaster | Old Wolf | Lethal | Wulfhook | Impaler | White Magician | Midnight Chaser

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