Folk Metal Fury: Arkona brings 15-Year Anniversary show to Echoplex with Sirenia, MindMaze, Graveshadow

By Jason Williams
(photos by Samuel Ware)


May 26th 2017, The Echoplex, Los Angeles CA: Moscow, Russia. Through the history books, assumed stories, and what we’re told about it as kids, Russia was something unlike most other places. Destined snowfall, frigid weather conditions, vodka, vodka, vodka, and Matryoshka dolls. Oh, and I forgot to mention, vodka. We know little about the country of Russia. There are aspects I do know well from it: Fedor Emelianenko, the most accomplished heavyweight to ever grace Mixed Martial Arts. The other? Pagan folk metal’s finest from Moscow, the band Arkona. For 15 years and counting, Arkona have graced our metal hearts and passions with some of the finest complexity, bringing forth passionate traditional Russian style folk, as well as intense black metal on the roaring front. The provocative nature of the lyrics, Russian mythology, legendary tales, and various folktale Paganism cannot be denied, which simply brings this band to life in a rare, blissful way. Coming off a high-profile tour supporting Epica and Fleshgod Apocalypse last fall, Arkona are playing a special 15th anniversary set on their current North American headline tour. What’s more, this is also the first ever US tour for Norwegian symphonic/gothic metal group Sirenia. This evening was a highly anticipated one for the folk metal crowd, and I couldn’t wait for the metal to flow.

One unique aspect of this show was that all four bands have a female singer. But as I entered into the venue, there was some confusion as I arrived at the Echoplex, amongst an early crowd patiently waiting for the doors to open. Checking the set times posted throughout the venue, it seemed that this was a co-headlining tour, and that Arkona and Sirenia decided to take turns closing the set, but with each band getting the same amount of time. Given that this was Sirenia’s first US appearance, and Arkona doing very well when touring here, also coming off a huge tour with Epica, I was rather surprised, and doubtful of how that would turn out. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t find that out until later in the evening.

But in the meantime, Graveshadow opened festivities. Personally, Arkona was the only band on this bill that I know about, giving myself an opportunity to hear some new bands. With a dose of symphonic metal, the Sacramento, California based Graveshadow provided some inspired energy to the crowd, as more and more people filled the venue through their set and found themselves head-banging right away. The sound can be described as a polished, guitar-driven potent attack, with a catchy tone that worked quite well with this crowd. Frontwoman Heather Michele Smith moved all across the stage, providing the commanding vocal presence the fans truly enjoyed. Although the clean, operatic vocals felt a little flat at times, the growling was superb and fit quite well. Rhythm guitarist William Lloyd Walker’s guitar volume was rather low in the mix, but the bits I was able to hear, gave their symphonic backtracks that extra power and boost, and translated well live. Their closing song ‘Blood and Fire’ was the highlight of the set, and specially for the crowd, who formed a large line by their merch booth after their set. It’s rather rare to hear a symphonic metal band hailing from Sacramento, but with more metal bills as perfectly suited to them as this one, I can see Graveshadow on many more tours to come.

Graveshadow photos:

Graveshadow set list:
01. Namesake
02. Blink
03. Lycan Lust
04. Winter’s Come to Call
05. Blood and Fire

Perhaps it was because of the Memorial Day weekend, with many leaving out of town on this Friday to prepare for it, the crowd size wasn’t as big as it could have been, but it wasn’t bad by any means. Second band to hit the stage was MindMaze, who came all the way from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to a rather informed crowd who were not only wearing their shirts, but have been waiting for their first Southern California performance, and from someone who had not heard a note from MindMaze before, they certainly did not disappoint. From the opening moments with the song ‘Abandon’, MindMaze did not just come to play, they meant business. Out came a progressive power metal sound I haven’t heard too much of, with an aggressive, almost menacing captivation. Not only was each musician solid and graceful while playing, but the intensity just flowed beautifully. Lead guitarist Jeff Teets and keyboardist Jonah Weingarten traded off blistering melodies and solos, absolutely crystal clear and not lost in the mix at any point. Weingarten’s keyboard sound was quite complimentary to Jeff Teets’ glowing melodic playing.’Sign of Life’ was the standout, with singer Jeff’s sister Sarah Teets singing with a strong, powerful voice, hands raised in the air, feeling the music from the stage and the fans in the crowd, a fire in her eyes that you can see from the back of the Echoplex. Sarah’s presence and vocal ability stood out most definitely. I wasn’t expecting such an aggressive progpower style that would translate so well live, and MindMaze absolutely exceeded my expectations, and for their first Southern California show, I would say the response from the crowd indicated as much. Destiny calls indeed, and says that MindMaze are the real deal.

MindMaze photos:

MindMaze set list:
01. Abandon
02. Consequence of Choice
03. Sign of Life
04. One More Moment
05. Destiny Calls
06. This Holy War

Chants of “Arkona” echoed greatly throughout the dark halls of the Echoplex. A couple of fans were even holding Russian flags to show their love and support. 9:15 PM on the dot, Arkona came out to a roar of appropriate fear, happiness and a nitro cold brew jolt of metal energy from this folk loving crowd. There was no doubt that this was the main reason everyone was here tonight. This was my third Arkona gig, and I’m gratefully reminded how fierce and unique their very sound and demeanor is, channeling a vibrant spirit of dancing folk wrapped up in a firestorm explosion of piercing metal. Guitarist Sergey “Lazar” was the instrumental backbone, offering gorgeous melodies, catchy folk riffs, as well as the brutal side of black metal, never showing a pattern of redundancy. From their debut album ‘Revival’, the song ‘Vozrozhdenie’ truly resonated with the crowd, as most of the audience in attendance was singing the words bright as day, also clapping along to the flute and bagpipe playing of Vladimir “Wolf”. I loved how the volume on his instruments were high in the mix, but never buried the others. It’s rather difficult these days to get the native instruments correctly mixed, especially with metal playing alongside it.

And of course, deserving a whole section of praise and respect, the immense highlight of Arkona’s fantastic 75-minute set, as well as the entire show, was the leader, founder, frontwoman and vocalist, Masha “Scream”. Since my first Arkona show at the Joint in November of 2013, I was astonished and mesmerized by the eclectic and elite ability Masha displays. Her energy is raw, real and positively toxic. You will be wanting to move around as much as she is on stage, with the commanding stage presence she so easily exudes. There is absolutely zero gimmick with Masha, and the fans know it too. Not only in her stage movement, but her vocal work is remarkable. One verse and chorus, a Russian tongue singing in a jolly, almost celebratory manner, to a carnage like rage in the form of her growls and menacing screams. I can wholeheartedly exclaim, Masha is the best frontwoman I have ever seen live. It’s an unbelievable honor to witness her superior metal skills and passionate character.

Fan favorite ‘Goi, Rode, Goi!’ saw the mosh pit open up heavily, from the whirling circle forming in the crowd, to a quick jig, people holding hands and dancing in circles, captivated by the nature of the band. Masha’s chant at the end of the song is signature Arkona, in the most foretelling and joyous way. Each time she thanked the crowd, she was greeted with chants in Russian, asking for more and more songs. It clearly was an Arkona concert, as the band masterfully slayed the eardrums of the audience here at Echoplex. Truly a magical folk metal band who makes both words of that genre wonderfully proud. The absolute highlight of the night.

Arkona photos:

With the crowd looking spent after that grand performance, I wondered how Sirenia would hold this Arkona-loving audience. About 10 minutes past their scheduled start time, the Norwegian quartet arrived on stage, to about everyone still in attendance. For a band playing since 2001, and this being their first US tour, Sirenia deserved all the eyeballs and eardrums for their undivided attention. They were certainly a contrast to Arkona, playing a slower brand of gothic metal with a symphonic backtrack, including a bass track, as Sirenia don’t play with a bassist live. Providing some wicked harsh vocals, rhythm guitarist Morten Veland didn’t let up the tired crowd, getting a lot of them to still head-bang and show them something new. Frontwoman Emmanuelle Zoldan sang the most soprano-like of any of the singers tonight, and her classical sounding diction and phrase was a highlight. Her singing shone the most in the instrumental breaks and symphonic moments throughout their 14-song set, even more so when the band decided to increase the speed as displayed in ‘Meridian’, personally my favorite song of their set, and ‘The End of it All’, which definitely showed another color in Sirenia’s palette. I did notice the crowd slowly waning during the latter part of their set, with the tempo of the band not quite fast enough in more moments for those expecting it. Switching the closing slot each night between Sirenia and Arkona didn’t seem to help Sirenia much in this case as most of the audience came for Arkona. Although Sirenia was not at the level Arkona was, they surely had exciting moments and hopefully there will be plenty more opportunities for them to become acquainted with the US audience.

Sirenia photos:

Sirenia set list:
01. Serpent
02. Lost in Life
03. Dim Days of Dolor
04. My Destiny Coming to Pass
05. Goddess of the Sea
06. Treasure n’ Treason
07. Meridian
08. Ashes to Ashes
09. The End of It All
10. Sons of the North
11. Elusive Sun
12. My Mind’s Eye
13. The Other Side
14. The Path to Decay

Tonight’s show was overall, a tremendous success. It presented 4 different bands from 3 different countries, showing off a vast range of culture, and of course, a variety of metal itself. Arkona delivered some of the greatest folk metal you could ever ask for, and Russia certainly deserve many thanks for the creation of this high-level band, and for said band to bring this unique tour across North America. I will be gladly anticipating the next Arkona show, be it headlining or supporting another large metal band. Don’t forget your snow, vodka, legendary MMA titan, and your folk metal from Russia, anymore. It’s all here to stay.

Remaining Tour Dates:
05/30/2017 – Austin, TX @ Grizzly Hall

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