I’m not sure if I can accurately describe the crowd that came to see Finntroll, Blackguard, and Metsatöll at Trees in Dallas on Monday, Dec. 2. Long-haired metalheads dressed in black shirts and blue jeans mingled with guys in kilts. Grandfatherly older gentlemen were moshing with the energetic fresh-faced teenagers.
Despite the diversity, the crowd wasn’t large. Only about ¼ of the venue was filled, and if you’ve been to Trees, then you know that that isn’t very much at all. But no matter- despite the meager crowd, the bands still played as if they were performing in front of thousands. From the custom outfits, to the face paint, to the prosthetics (yes, I said prosthetics), no one can say that folk metal bands don’t embrace showmanship.
First up was Metsatöll from Estonia. To be honest, I had never given them a serious listen until I saw them live. But what a show they put on. From start to finish, Metsatöll did an excellent job of combining dark, heavy, metal riffs with lively, traditional folk instrumentals. Markus Teeäär (vocals and guitar) has a deep and powerful voice, which harmonizes especially well when combined with the throaty, resonating, bass vocals of Lauri Õunapuu. Lauri is also a talented musician when it comes to traditional folk instruments, including the bagpipes, flute, and several other instruments that I’ve never seen before in my life. Starting off with "Küü," Metsatöll had the crowd engaged from the very beginning. But the highlight of the set (and for me, the entire night) came with their very last song, "Metsaviha 2." This particular song combines droning guitars and chanting in way that makes you feel as if the bass is penetrating the inner recesses of your mind. Combined with the red lights bathing the stage, I had to close my eyes, stop analyzing the show and shooting photos, and soak in the moment. I never thought a metal show could be meditative and transcendent, but this truly was.
Next was Blackguard, from Canada. While lead singer Paul Zinay is a wild man on stage who absolutely exudes energy, and drummer Justine Ethier is a force to be reckoned with, much of their set was forgettable to me. Certainly nothing like the spine-chilling vocal harmonics that Metsatöll left us with. The order might have been arranged that way because Blackguard is better known in the U.S., and their fast, percussive-driven set was meant to build up audience excitement for Finntroll , but I was left wanting a more traditional sound. Blackguard is good, but they’re certainly more “modern” than the rest of the lineup. If anyone else in the audience felt the way I did though, they didn’t show it. The crowd was just as excited for Blackguard as they were for the previous band. They played mostly older songs, (including the very fun “This Rounds On Me”) but did incorporate a few new songs off their new album set for release in 2014.
Which brings us to the main event- Finntroll, from (where else?) Finland. I’ve never seen one of their live performances, so I was pleasantly surprised when they came on stage wearing realistic troll ears. Such dedication! Although their setlist resembles an IKEA catalog (all their lyrics are sung in Swedish), you don’t need to understand the words to comprehend the brutality of the lyrics. Vocalist Mathias "Vreth" Lillmåns does a fine job of conveying that through his snarling facial expressions.
Guitarist Samuli "Skrymer" Ponsimaa was unable to attend the tour due to visa issues, but Brandon Ellis of Arsis served as a more than suitable stand-in. He even joined in on the fun by donning his own face paint to match his new, albeit temporary, band mates.
The set opened strong with the title track from their new album, Blodsvept. However, although they were on tour to promote the new album, they made sure to play many old favorites to keep long-time fans satisfied. This was made clear with the second song, "Solsagen," from 2010’s Nifelvind. That was followed with "Ett Folk Förbannat," which Mathias lovingly dedicated to all the ladies in the audience. While many rock shows tend to mellow out towards the middle, that wasn’t the case here. For the next 3 songs, "Dråp," "Slaget Vid Blodsälv," and "En Mäktig Här," Mathias urged the crowd to dance along, and they happily obliged by opening up a healthy-sized mosh pit. The remainder of the set consisted of "Svartberg," "När Jättar Marschera," "Under Bergets Rot," "Nedgång," "Skövlarens Död," "Skogsdotter," "Häxbrygd," and "Jaktens Tid"- a good mix of old and new.
But of course, the crowd wasn’t satisfied without an encore from the headliners. So Finntroll returned to the stage to the delight of fans who had begun shouting “Finn-f***ing-troll!” after they walked off. They played two more songs, "Nattfödd," and the quintessential "Trollhammaren."
Overall, this was a very solid show. I’m not a fan of Trees as a venue in general, (partly because I think having support beams in the middle of the crowd is a lawsuit waiting to happen), but all 3 bands on this line-up did a good job of working the room. Many even came and hung out with fans after their sets were over, and Finntroll spent extra time high-fiving people and signing autographs at the end of their set because of the small size of the crowd. It was a great way to use the intimate setting to the advantage of the fans. I walked away from this show with a renewed respect and appreciation for bands who give it their all despite low turnouts. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long to see folk metal come through Dallas again.