There can be few cities more appropriate to host a festival of predominantly pagan/Viking metal than the place that previously was named Jorvik (and before that Eboracum), and there it’s a beautiful bright day to greet us too. I have known York all my life but it still never ceases to be anything but beautiful when you walk through a Roman gateway or along the ancient walls. If you’ve never been, trust me between these sights and some excellent pubs you won’t be disappointed. My destination however is The Duchess, a fine venue wedged below a concrete car park from the sixties and behind a local Jobcentre. Modern life, eh?
After a little wait, we get in. As there’s a curfew on the gig due to a popular club night at 10:30 this causes a bit of minor irritation later on but, y’know, the venue is a cracking place and the club night is a money spinner so that’s the way it is.
Relatively local act Northern Oak are the opening act and never having managed to catch them before I surprised to be facing a very nattily dressed bunch too in shirts and waistcoats. I feel kind of scruffy all of a sudden. They hit us with ‘The Dark of Midsummer’ and it’s a fine blend of folk metal with an aggressive bm slant. Their flautist comes over clear and fine, and despite filling the stage they are an animated, charismatic and engaging crew with distinct songs and that melody adding a bounce to the proceedings. With a fine frontman and an often swirling sound they are an excellent start to things and with a locally relevant ‘Marston Moor’ and the excellent closer ‘In These Hills’ from their Monuments album it’s a fine start and a quick trip to the merch stall for that CD for me.
Mael Mordha are next and, yes, I was looking forward to this (read the review of Damned When Dead). Dry ice gathers over a chanting intro and with war paint and some fine ink they wade into us. Warhorns? Yep they play one. With towering vocals and sheer intensity from the cowled bass player and shaven headed guitarist ‘Laudabiliter’ bites hard. It is dramatic and crowd pleasing stuff. People push closer and it’s impossible not to be swept up by the drama and songs. Between songs the vocalist is charm personified, within the song he is totally committed and with tracks ranging across four albums they show variety and total class. With forays into the crowd there is nowhere to hide and who would want to. Thunderous, deep epic metal from ‘Curse Of The Bard’, a staggering rendition of ‘Bloody Alice’ and when they play ‘All Eire Will Quake’ I suspect half of York did too. Add in some gentle humour when the strong Irish accent gets the crowd momentarily scratching their heads and even a mini stage invasion, Mael Mordha lift the roof. Warhorns is truly flying now.
Headliners tonight are Kull. If the name means nothing at the moment, as it meant nothing to me, then don’t worry because I have the feeling they will be well on your radar soon. They have no album out yet but a pedigree in Bal Sagoth members and have ‘risen from the ashes of the past’. ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ hits me right in the gut. Such a contrast to the previous bands, Kull take a huge axe to the night. Sound and fury, a swathe of black, death and thrash in their sound they absolutely work their arses off and with total commitment and passion. The vocalist is a class act; working the crowd hard and throwing himself into every line, a real focus of the razor sharp chaos. The crowd responds well and the hair begins to windmill, the heads bang. It’s easy to get lost when you know nothing by a band but Kull, through sheer ferocity and hard work, win me over.
Their set ends somewhat abruptly due to the over run, to their obvious annoyance but they should be happy in the knowledge it was a pretty flawless victory.
I wander back to the lodgings via three whiskies and two random acoustic sets in bars I stumble across (this is York, it’s what you find away from the lager and football run) and flop into bed thinking on three fine but very different bands on one bill. Nice night I reckon.
Day two starts bright and early. Which is a bad idea as the gig doesn’t start until 14:30 so I just shove some breakfast in me and go back to bed for another four hours… (I’m old, sue me…) Beauty restored by slumber (*cough*) I wander down to the Duchess again. It’s a fairly good attendance too for a still young festival up North (second year only). I should say here that the crowd is a real friendly bunch with an admirably broad age range (when I’m not the oldest person there I notice things like that!) and clearly beards are back in, too. As well as some excellent tattoos. I also should say Hi and cheers to the cool bunch of Germans I met the previous night, the Northern Darkness HMC, who were a pleasure to meet. Cheers for the brew, guys. Hope you enjoyed it all.
We get into the venue roughly on time and the slight delay is made up during the changeovers during the day (honestly: Don’t think I saw anyone in a Warhorns Crew t-shirt stand still for more than five seconds all day. Hard working people that lot) and after securing a much needed beer, the first band are on.
Tabards, kilts, dreadlocked monks and a neat line in tankard holders for the mic stand are the order of the day for Haerken (that’s ‘harken!’ to you). They give the impression for being a pretty new band but clearly a thoughtful one. They have a big, and excellent front guy, resplendent with red hair and kilt, who has a good, resonant voice that suits the chunky sound. There are a few sound problems which lose some obvious guitar melodies beneath the drums but still they have real promise. Name filed away for future listening.
Gymir on next follow these fashion tips too, just with more horns on the mic stand this time. Pretty young they still manage an atmospheric take on pagan metal with a sound laced with heavy keyboards that wanders close to Emperor style swathes one moment and more introspective early …In The Woods at other. There was a bit of guitar drop out and (I think) a minor monitor issue that didn’t help the clean vocals at one point but it was interesting and good enough for me to shell out for their EP on sale.
Shock of the day came in the form of Glasgow’s Maelstrom. Down from Scotland, just arrived, straight on and… yeah. Pretty impressive stuff. Sartorially taking cues from Akercocke and with a black and white motif throughout they delivered a really impressive, mature set. With a tall, blonde singer who looked like he was from an 80s synth-pop band but transformed into a howling, Luciferian figure when their death tinged black metal roared out they really grabbed the attention. Prog tinges in the instrumental passages and a seriously well drilled stage act meant they really lodged in the mind and added a nice little shake-up to the day. Alas they never got chance to set up their merch stall and departed pretty quickly (I think they had parking problems, something York residents would sympathise with!) but I will most definitely be checking this lot out again.
Alestorm’s Gareth Murdock takes the stage next with his new (and first gig!) thrash band Mekkwarrior. Hoping they don’t “Crash ‘n’ Burn’ (sad low budget movie ref) I join the crowd who appear to be very eager for this lot. Well, what can I say? If you were expecting pirates but faster you were in for a rude shock. They hit the stage at absolute full pelt and proceed to tear into us with some totally brutal, nasty venomous thrash. I mean this is about as far from sing-alongs as you can get and just speeds through a crowd that really lap it up. Clearly having a ball this is full, energetic and bright eyed stuff that is infectious as the grins at the bar after their set proves. Not a bad start for anyone that!
Now talking of pirates, Red Rum sail into view next with some pirate metal. Being one of the grumpy bastards who thought this was a bad idea five years ago I wasn’t expecting much if I’m honest and wasn’t sure how anyone could follow Mekkwarior. Well just goes to show, eh. With a visually arresting line-up including a seated guitarist and a large but very mobile lad on vocals and frilly black shirt, plus by my count twenty strings between two guitarists and a bass player, they turn in a very likeable set of jiggery and riffery. It’s actually catchy and great fun and with a fine set of lungs on the singer and a perfectly judged tone. Songs like ‘Drenched In Ale’ and ‘Out With The Tide’ make it the perfect change of pace. Thank you Red Rum. And second best dance of the day, too.
Into the second half Warhorns brought us brought Infernal Creation: I missed a bit due to the need for food (handily solved by the local food festival on in the city square) but returned to see a crowded stage front and a full on black metal assault in progress. Very crunchy stuff indeed and another hard working band paid dividends in a really good crowd reaction. Not my thing but everyone else seemed to absolutely love them so job done.
If you can be judged by your fans and the reaction of other bands name checking you from stage, Old Corpse Road are one very cool band. I’ve kind of had a mixed history with them as I seem to get frustrated by what I see as huge potential not quite getting there. Plus a couple of weeks prior I had watched them turn in what I found to be a relatively unimpressive set in Leeds so I was kind of dreading this. Well, second time in one day I eat my words as these hard working road dogs turned in an excellent set. Overcoming a couple of technical niggles they delivered a haunting, atmospheric set that was as tight as anything. Great keyboard sections drawing the mists in, proper use of a stage lights and some fine harmony vocals on tracks like the evergreen ‘Witch Of Wookey Hole’. Drawing on the country’s rich folklore heritage, in a city as old as York, they totally won me over with their dark tales and haunting sound. Excellent.
Into the home stretch and you’ll have to forgive me here as my ignorance of second billed band from Germany Fjoergyn probably worked badly against me. These Germans name means ‘Earth’ in Icelandic, apparently, and they presented a tight, very professional stage show. Singing in their native tongue they played a nature and at times pastoral inflected blend of black metal with small swirls of post rock and a rather martial sound to the drumming. Despite some technical issues which (may have, I am unsure) cut their set short they seemed to be enjoyed by the majority of the crowd and there was quite a bit of attention at their merch stand which was nice to see for people having travelled so far. In the end though it was a bit too dense for me to penetrate on first listening.
We then had a little raffle, with some generous prizes from the sponsors Trollzorn records (nope, unlucky as ever I win nowt). Which only left headliners Black Messiah. My only previous experience of this long standing band of Germanic warriors was 2012’s “The Final Journey” which I found a little generic but very nicely executed viking/pagan metal so I was eager to see what they could do live. Clad as warriors, with a frontman who did triple time with vocals, guitars and fiddle when needed, and with a new backline they really went for it. They were a really expressive band, hearts on their sleeves and glad to be there and it showed. They had a big, rousing sound and some excellent viking metal musical interludes and lots of hair flying from the crowd in response. As well as Best Dance Of The Night from the lads in Old Corpse Road. Probably. ‘Lindisfarne’ was dedicated to the local historical residents and a fine (and amusingly introduced) sing-along drinking song sent the crowd away into a Saturday night with smiles. A bit much for me, but they were a fine band for most people I reckon by the chat.
So the second Warhorns? A small, friendly festival in a beautiful location.Lots of new bands to explore and some more familiar ones to enjoy. My hat comes off to those involved in organising it, and to the Duchess for its live music ethos. Thank you people. I’m sure behind the scenes there was the usual panics, successes and disasters overcome but to us punters it was simply an excellent day and a half and well worth the visit.
I certainly intend to be there again next year, hopefully with a few mates in tow, too.
Thank you Warhorns. I hope the word spreads. You deserve it.
Review by Gizmo