Well it was always going to be touch and go as to whether we got into town early enough to see Stonebearer, but we had to eat so sadly missed them.
We did see Bristol band Mordrake though. They warmed up the Saturday crowd well with their band of blackened melodic metal and played a cool set. Vehement followed them with a full on set of kind of black/death extreme metal. Forceful stuff with some excellent drumming too with a sound a lot like early Enslaved, maybe with a touch of Dissection here and there. Not bad, certainly got my head nodding.
By complete contrast the next band were the charming, unassuming and self deprecating Welsh folk metal band Annwn. “We don’t play live much. Like ever…” lead singer Owain ap Arawn said smiling, and then proceeded to lead his merry crew through the brightest and warmest set of folk metal at this year’s Warhorns. More foot tapping and headbanging than an entire fleet of pirate metal they enthralled us with a heartfelt set of songs of a sound somewhere between the Finnish scene and Forefather but with a soul stepped in Welsh mythology and great guitar melodies all their own. Live keyboards round out the sound perfectly and their stage presence is good. With songs like Broken Sword and the utterly magnificent Mountain’s Farewell to close I feel privileged to have been at one of their few live excursions. The crowd loved them too so they better get on and finish that way overdue debut album.
By complete contrast Heathen Deity crash Warhorns like a Satanic biker gang. I was really taken with their recent EP so obviously looked forward to this. This is brutal, uncompromising stuff; inverted crucifixes and spikes and leather and corpse paint the order. True English Black Metal, says the patch and this tight crew play it like they mean it. With the frighteningly intense Dagon threatening and cajoling the crowd, their brand of hard and muscular black metal is a charismatic and imperious performance. With a great cover of Death Crush and a blinding incitement to Gut The Church they get the crowd going nicely. Great set guys.
Damnation’s Hammer I have to admit are a tricky one for me. To say their set went down well is an understatement, particularly amongst fellow musicians I discovered, and I could certainly appreciate their heads down, no frills attitude and stage show but coming to them new I was a little disappointed. It was all a bit too Celtic Frost worship for me, so I’ll have to go and listen to them on record maybe. But as noted, I was in a minority, probably of one.
None of us are entirely sure what happened next. Some drug fuelled Robert W Chambers hallucination or just a techie accidentally opening a gate to the nether realms but whatever, it let The Infernal Sea through. Throughout their appearance two robed, masked cultists stand holding lanterns, motionless at the back as the two hideous plague birds, the windmilling drummer and the high priest ravage us with an utterly chaotic and destructive take on black and death metal. The stage show is truly several high steps up from just last year at Damnation, the music a bewildering maelstrom of maybe older Satyricon and Dissection and something like the chaotic edges of Blut Aus Nord hurled howling through a tempest. The stage gear is great: Hooded robes like an amalgamation of seafarer’s oilskin and a military greatcoat, huge rotten plague bird faces and black faceless masks stamped with the sigil of The Infernal Sea cult but it would still be nothing without the horrible, wonderful music. We don’t know what happened but it was great. Set of the festival.
And prize for the best surprise comes in the form of Belfast band Darkest Era and their epic Celtic influenced heavy metal. I had heard them years ago but nothing prepared me for what the band is now. With bearded singer Krum ‘s great clean metal voice and the twin guitars of Ade Mulgrew and Sarah Wieghell and a thumping great rhythm section in Daniel O’Toole and Cameron Aushland-Glass their heart is somewhere around the classic Irish metal sound of Thin Lizzy but with a modern heft and weight worthy of Primordial, Mael Mordha and Mourning Beloveth. They really own the stage with just sheer emotional honesty and a fistful of songs that really sink in even on first hearing. A guest appearance from local ‘celebrity’ Mr Targaryen (he’s a skull on a stick…) , some great stage movement and a real connected crowd, they finish with the fantastic song The Morrigan and depart. A band I am going to have to look into the back catalogue of urgently.
Black Messiah and I have met, musically speaking, three times now and it’s never ended well for me, for reasons I don’t fully understand to be honest. Something about their Teutonic black metal doesn’t work for me. But you can’t like everyone, so I go for a sit down. I am reliably informed by 3 Socks that not only were they good but well received, as I would expect from a band who have played half of all Warhorns festivals.
All great festivals have to end, and Warhorns ends with long standing Latvian heroes Skyforger. They have a lot of fans in the hall, some of them even from Latvia, and from the off the bodies are hurling into each other. It’s another home away from home welcome party but I’m not sure I’m invited. The band are plainly superb; tight, having fun and playing some almost Bathory style Viking metal that is very hard, very heavy and accelerates well into thrash velocities at the flick of a wrist. The bodies become shirtless, a seething sweaty end of Warhorns celebration and Skyforger dance on. Every song is treated to a long explanatory introduction (almost all of which I fail to catch!) as history and myth really matter to these guys, and then their heavy but highly melodic hoard charges onwards. If you know it, it is probably great. If you don’t and you’re young enough or drunk enough to strip off the top and charge in (no gender restrictions, this is Warhorns) then it is also great fun. Me though, I listen politely and accept it’s not the time or place to find a way in. It happens but it’s not a damper on another raging festival success owners.
All in all this was the best Warhorns yet for me. I hope it was for the organisers too and for The Venue owner Ian Wright who has been put through the wringer by the local council for too long now. Warhorns came within a short spit of the holy grail of selling out and as ever the band selection and play order were eclectic and spot on. We saw superb sets from old friends like Valafar Annwn, Arkham Witch, Fen and Old Corpse Road, had surprises from Skoll, Necronautical, Martyrium, Darkest Era and the abominations of The Infernal Sea and enjoyed the company of so many genuinely fun people from across the world. Even the one guy who, first one in the four Warhorns I’ve been to, took the drunken behaviour too far was discretely but firmly talked to by the great security guy (he’s a metalhead too). A festival that’s a genuinely friendly and safe place (there were two sub-ten year olds there with their dad, blissfully headbanging away), in a great venue with great bands and just a blast. It was also really great to see the Cult Never Dies stall and author Dayal Patterson there, a great addition to the usual merch.
Oh and as is traditional I won nothing in the raffle…
Cheers once again to all the Warhorns crew: Marc Ollis, Glynn Beasley and Elliot Vernon and their amazing supporters who hopefully are Toby, Teds, Alex, Kayleigh, Laura, Shamsi and Joanna! Also a good shout to the great Venue staff and also the bar next door The Riverside for providing respite for old aching feet, food and more beer.
Here’s to 2018. Already have Kalmah announced with Atorc, The Prophecy, Dark Forest (big draw for me), Ravenage and Moribund Oblivion and the early bird tickets have already sold out (I got mine on the Sunday)! Hopefully this means Warhorns is no longer such a well kept secret.
Raise the Horns indeed.
Words By Gizmo
Pictures by Eric Zahn