[Text & photos by Damiano Lenzi]
On the morning of Friday the 17th, I arrive in Leipzig after a sleepless night spent on the fashionable but uncomfortable chaises longues of the Bologna airport. There is still time to see the city center before the Runes & Men Festival begins. I take lunch at the Bayerischer Banhof, where the typical salty Gose bier is brewed, visit the majestic Neues Rathaus, then I go back to the hotel, put on my uniform and boots and I’m on the way to the Theaterfabrik.
When Ritual Havoc begins to play, shortly after the scheduled time, there’s already a lot of people at the venue. The band delivers some direct and powerful classic-neofolk tunes. Some of these songs really impressed my mind: I had never heard before “Children of the Black Sun” and “Traitor Like Judas”, but I found myself singing them in the car while I was driving back home! The two acoustic guitars (one six-strings and one twelve-strings) play strummed chords à la Death In June, while Rob Monstar’s deep voice has a dark/goth feel and some chants that make me think of Fire + Ice. On the percussions we have Miro Snejdr, who proves to be an excellent and dynamic martial drummer, aside from a great contemporary pianist. It’s a nice surprise for the audience when Simone Salvatori of Spiritual Front joins in for a cover of “But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter”.
People continues to flock into the Theaterfabrik and Jännerwein are warmly welcomed by the audience. Their five-elements lineup brings a rich and layered sound with acoustic guitar and bass, violin (sometimes also played with a nice pizzicato), percussions (the drummer also plays accordion in some songs) and bouzouki. All the members have a secure mastery of their instruments and their performance is helped by the good live-mixing, while some other acts in the evening will have problems in this sense. The four-voiced choirs that they make in some of the songs have an impressing compactness and intonation that suddenly brings your heart and mind into an alpine landscape.
It’s the turn of cult-band While Angels Watch and their distinctive blend of electric post-punk and neofolk, similar to early Naevus works. The classic guitar-bass-drums lineup is enriched by the violin, that at some points interacts with the guitar melodies during the solos creating an interesting tonal contrast. Dev is a good frontman and he dominates the scene with his skinhead look and with the harsh sound of his Gibson SG, that he switches with violence between clean and distortion. There are some new songs, but two of the highlights of the set are from the “Dark Age” album: “Eye For Eye” and “Burn Like Ice”, with a theme played by Dev on the melodica and an intense crescendo in the coda. Unfortunately there are some technical problems, notably when the piano player joins the band and suddenly the keyboards disappear from the mix, but Dev solves the impasse interacting with the audience.
For the Fire + Ice set, the legendary Ian Read is accompanied by Mathias Krause of Vurgart on guitar (that already performed with Jännerwein) and again Miro Snejdr behind the drums and on accordion. Ian’s voice is capable, as few others do, to take the listener into ancient times with versions of English traditionals and murder ballads as “The Cutty Wren” and “Long Lankin” together with original songs as “Call Up The Four Winds”. Mathias has a fine technique on acoustic guitar, but it’s a pity that for most of the concert Miro’s accordion is not audible from the speakers due to technical problems. The audience reacts enthusiastically at the unmistakable arpeggio of “Empfindsamkeit” originally sung by Ian Read in the album “Erde” by Forseti. There is a long applause and Ian appears to emotionally touched, as everyone in the Theaterfabrik, then he declares “It’s said that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and Andreas… he was a genius”. Without any doubt the most moving moment in the whole festival.
Spiritual Front is surely one of the most awaited acts of the evening. This Italian band has many followers here in Germany: people recognizes the hits, sings the choruses and dances as it happens at a pop-rock concert (a lady from Hamburg in the audience ironically suggests that Simone Salvatori is the Robbie Williams of neofolk). But there’s much more than pop in their songs, there’s a wide panorama of inspirations that ranges from American southern-rock, surf, country and rockabilly, to contemporary art-rock bands as The National, Woodpigeon, Divine Comedy and obviously neofolk music. Simone is an histrionic presence and the more the audience screams and shouts, the more he jumps and runs ‘round the stage with his acoustic guitar in the arms. It’s a continuous crescendo of energy, even towards the end of the show, when the heat of the reflectors is literally killing him. He jokes saying that every time he comes to Germany he promises to learn to speak German, but never does; then before playing “Jesus Died in Las Vegas” he says “Jesus Died in Germany”. All the songs are widely appreciated, from “I Walk the (Dead) Line” to “Hey Boy” with its disco bassline; from the new song “Disaffection” to one featured in the split album with Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio. Another thing that helped Spiritual Front to gain this success is the disarming sincerity of Simone’s songwriting, the way he talks of very private aspects, even of his sexual and sentimental life, as it happens in “Darkroom Friendship” and “Slave” (amazing industrial coda on this one!). Simone catches most of the attention, but I would like to spend a word about the guys in the band, because they’re all really talented musicians. The guitarist has an extremely personal style, his Fender Jaguar has a vintage twang sound and it’s beautiful when he plays it with the slide or makes dive bombs with the tremolo. The rhythmic section too is awesome: the bass has a weird saturated sound that anyway leaves all the dynamics intact.
The energy level remains high with the Kirlian Camera live (last band of the evening). The synths and sequencers of the masked Angelo Bergamini are accompanied by heavy guitar and bass with an almost metal feel (the guitarist even plays a couple of technical solos). It’s a show to hear, but also to see, at least for the boys in the theater, because tonight Elena Alice Fossi is amazing in her camo shorts, black jacket and leather gloves. She dances and moves in sensual ways for all the concert, but the intonation of her voice always stays perfect. So here’s the second “popstar” of the evening! Even a cover of “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd finds space in the set, that lasts until late night (it’s almost morning when they play an encore of two songs).
It’s been an exciting evening, but also exhausting from a certain point of view (some sets have been quite long, while in the second evening every set had an adequate length and all has been more easy-going), so I go back to the Hotel Stern that, due to its proximity to the venue, appears as a neofolk army-barrack. Saturday is the 18th of October, anniversary of the crucial day of the Battle of Leipzig (1813); so what better moment to visit the Völkerschlachtdenkmal? This imposing memorial tower with giant granite statues is 91 meters tall and has 364 steps. I see many visitors with Death In June and Current 93 patches and pins on their clothes: evidently there is no industrial/neofolk fan that can remain indifferent to the aesthetic power of this monument and the nearby park with the memorial cemetery is a must-see too.
Reaching the Theaterfabrik, I notice that there is less people than on the first evening at the same hour. Judging by the t-shirts and the lesser presence of Reich-militaria enthusiasts, many people is here to see Rome. Even the kiosk outside (that serves bratwursts, leberkäse and other German streetfood) is still closed. Fortunately it opens shortly after, otherwise I think I would have cried in desperation. As I enter, I see on the stage a girl with horns on her head. She’s not a Wagnerian heroine, but Jordan Reyne. She sings and plays guitar and makes a wide use of the loop station, demonstrating an excellent coordination and control over it. Some songs are built exclusively on layers of vocal tracks with a perfect intonation and a distinctive and dynamic voice. A nice and quite alternative act to begin the evening.
Many people arrives to see Roma Amor. This is another Italian band that is widely regarded here in Germany, in fact when I meet them the day after back at the Bologna airport, they say that the show was a success and all their merchandising and CDs have been sold. Their music for voice, guitar and accordion is influenced by Italian folk music, particularly from the Romagna region with its tradition of ballroom music and mazurkas. It’s very nice to see that people from northern countries understands the intensity of this heritage even if they don’t comprehend the words (some songs in Ravennate dialect, as “Lo Lo Lo” are difficult to decipher even for me, that I live only 100 km away from that city!) and they sense the fascinating and grotesque popular culture behind figures as “La Zirinelda”, a sort of boogey-woman that strangles children. They play also songs in French (“Mon Amour”), in Spanish (“Dame un Beso”) and English, as “About Myself”, from this year’s album “On The Wire”. Before playing this song Euski says that it has been written by Mr. Candela, so it’s supposed to be about him, but the chorus says “my very miserable friend”, so it’s supposed to be her! I’m really happy when they play a brilliant version of “Port of Amsterdam”, originally by Jacques Brel, then translated by Scott Walker and interpreted by David Bowie, UV Pøp and many others. A great show!
OWLS is one of the projects by the great Tony Wakeford, aided by two excellent musicians: Eraldo Bernocchi on baritone guitar and Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari on laptop and electro-acoustic guitar. Maybe it’s one of his less known projects (during the show Tony ironically says “this is a song from our album: no one has ever heard it”), but it’s also one of the most interesting. I remember seeing them at the Villa Festival in Italy some years ago and being completely caught by the contrast between Tony’s voice, that we’re used to hear in a folk or industrial context, and this avant-garde electronic sound, the lush guitar effects and drones, the complex drum machines with a dubstep feel. Again this time I have the same impression. Furthermore, the mixing is very good (tonight it’s generally better than in the first evening for all the bands) and all the instrument are clear and distinct: the deep growl of the baritone guitar and the long feedback digital delays are a pleasure to hear.
Die Weiße Rose is probably the best show in terms of scenic impact and sonic power. Thomas Bøjden deploys a devastating lineup of three martial percussions sets. In the front line with him, there are Kim Larsen from OTWATM and Gary Carey from Joy of Life, plus another drummer in the back. A black and white film of a dancer with a mirror effect and a curtain of fog anticipate their arrival on stage. They walk in dressed in black shirts with the White Rose patch on the sleeve and M43 Panzer field-caps. Thomas doses well the tension in his declamations, that often start with a low lament to end up screaming “Es Lebe die Freiheit” (the famous last words of Hans Scholl, founder of the White Rose movement) or “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”, a motto that is also tattooed on his arms. The intensity of the performance is incredible, a wall of drums over dark ambient patterns and samples of old piano melodies, all in a really thrilling atmosphere, with a spectacular lightshow that enhances the four figures onstage for an almost fearsome outcome.
Kim Larsen comes back to stage few minutes after for the :Of The Wand & The Moon concert. The setlist is dominated by the songs of their last album, the beautiful “The Lone Descent”. When the album was released in 2011 I felt it as a breath of fresh air in the neofolk panorama, it breaks the sometimes strict barriers of this genre to experiment rich arrangements that are peculiar of north American rock bands as Arcade Fire and Sunset Rubdown, adding a darker mood and some unsetting samples. The sound of their live show proceeds in the same direction, with a six-elements formation that includes two keyboards, drums, electric and acoustic guitars and a Macca-style Hofner bass. the reaction of the audience to some songs as “Absence”, “Tear it Apart” and “A Pyre of Black Sunflowers” is really enthusiastic, showing that the formula still works well, thanks to the melodic appeal of Kim’s vocal lines (it’s not easy to write catchy song with such a deep vocal timbre). Unexpectedly, they replicate also in the live version the “time-lapse” effect intro in “A Tomb of Seasoned Dye”. My favorite episode is “Sunspot”, introduced by a moment of guitar noise: when played live, slightly faster and with the octave up vocal more in evidence, I think that the chorus has a bigger incisiveness. A truly powerful song that shows all of Kim’s songwriting ability.
The last act of the Runes & Men 2014 is Rome, and as we already said they have a large amount of fans who came specifically for them tonight. Jerome Reuter sings and plays guitar, accompanied by keyboards, bass and drums. There is less electronica and samples in the show than in the records, the keyboard plays most of all electric organ parts and there is a more “indie-rock” vein, with an energetic rhythmic section. Some drum breaks recall the funk-punk of Gang of Four and, more recently, Interpol. Even the older songs as “Querkraft”, “Das Feuerordal” and “The Consolation of Man” are played in different shapes, often with changed vocal melodies. In the end I think that this outfit surely gives more energy and intensity to the live performance, and much of the audience agrees with that. During the concert, apart from his profound voice, we notice that Jerome is a fine guitarist with good tone and effects. The live mixing is almost impeccable, and among other things I’m enchanted by the clanging sound of the Fender Bass VI used by the bass player: this rare vintage instrument, with six strings as a guitar, but tuned as a bass, has been used among others by John Lennon and Robert Smith and has a strange and sexy sound that gives a completely uncommon balance to the mix. Jerome announces the last song, but the audience is still asking for more, so they play some generous encores at the end
As we all know Festivals End as Festivals Must, and it’s difficult to come back to everyday life after an experience with such a sense of participation and community. Everyone here wants to have a good time and you have the occasion to know a lot of nice people. That’s why, at the third edition, the Runes & Men Festival has already gained a wide acknowledgement and I hope it will go on like that. Definitely worth the travel!