Edguy, Cynic, Ensiferum @ Club Capitol (Perth), 7 Jan 2010

A mishmash of genres makes for an interesting and, to some, rather confusing, night out.

Sydney’s Screamfest on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day brought nine international and ten local bands together in a two-day festival, the likes of which had not been seen before in Australia. But you don’t get that many artists down here, to what is verily the end of the earth, for one gig and then send them home… so the rest of Australia got to benefit with some great sideshows.

Of the internationals, Perth got one show with three wildly different bands - German power metallers Edguy, Florida progressive outfit Cynic, and Finnish folk heroes Ensiferum – the mishmash of genres presenting challenges for audience and venue alike.

Normally as a reviewer I try to put aside my personal feeling for a band and approach it as a fan of the relevant genre: hypothetically, if I were really into thrash/black metal or symphonic metal, would I be enjoying this performance of “band x”? Sometimes I am a fan and that makes it easy. Sometimes I’m not and it’s a little more difficult. For this show, however, I had to switch mindsets - not once, but three times; and, while not wanting to seem like I’m whining, it was really hard work.

Given the recent opening time weirdness at Capitol, I made sure I was lined up outside nice and early; and, true to form, the doors opened late. Ensiferum (the name apparently is Latin for “sword-bearer”) were up first. The screen behind the stage was displaying a horribly stretched and pixelated version of the album cover for their latest effort, From Afar.

I’ve heard non-metal people snort in derision at the very concept of folk metal – but history informs us that our ancient ancestors were not dope-smoking, dreadlocked, peace-and-love hippies like the popular image of modern folk artists, but blood-thirsty, savage, war-mongering barbarians, more often than not. Folk metal, then, is what real folk music should be. With that in mind, I set myself mentally for Ensiferum.

These warp-painted Finnish Vikings (wearing tartan kilts, go figure) have an incredible stage presence and got the crowd – the Capitol being probably three quarters full - windmilling, clapping and stomping along in no time at all. In fact, many of the people at the front seemed unsure whether to break into a circle pit or dance a jig at some points (both happened eventually).

The set included some older songs as well as new material – almost all songs being about war or drinking – but with only 45 minutes, there wasn’t a great deal of time to explore their back catalogue. The guitars suffered in the sound mix too - Markus Toivonen’s leads were nearly inaudible.

When they did finish up – with Iron - it was to a huge crowd response. I overheard quite a few complaints about the complete lack of Ensiferum merchandise available: a sure sign of a good show.

When the war clamours died down, the stage was changed for American progressive metallers Cynic. Although I had not heard much of this band, I was aware that their appearance here was highly anticipated by a certain portion of the crowd – which was starting to thin by perhaps a quarter.

The screen behind the stage changed to show a constantly shifting, flowing animation – which was later explained to be the work of Robert Venosa, a surrealist artist who created the cover artwork for both Cynic albums. It was mesmerising and set the mood for the music to come perfectly.

The band wandered out on stage, house lights still up, over a droning Middle Eastern style vocal track. They began to play – but the first few minutes were marred by each band member pointing at their instrument and gesticulating wildly to the sound guys. Eventually they seemed either satisfied with the adjustments, or gave up on getting any further improvements, and settled into the set.

There were definitely people who’d come tonight just to see Cynic – they moved to the front right away. But the rest of the crowd, still hyped from the rollicking Ensiferum set, tried initially to cheer and mosh, which was just not appropriate for the complex, constantly shifting rhythms that were now being played. Eventually the crowd seemed to work out that a combination of bobbing and swaying seemed to suit the music, with polite clapping in between songs.

A couple of songs in, frontman Paul Masvidal paused to say hello, and introduce the instrumental track Textures. The musicianship of these guys really shone through – both how they played individually (drummer Sean Reinert stood out in particular for me) and how flawlessly they came together as a unit. Between the surreal animations behind the band and the hypnotic spell cast by the music, those that were paying attention were mesmerized. (Those that weren’t were at the bar or out the front smoking.)

Cynic’s set was over in around 45 minutes – the polite applause was quite a bit stronger for the end of the set – and the set-up began for the last act of the night. The crowd thinned yet again: more than half of the people who had been there at the beginning of the evening were now missing in action, an inversion of the typical attendance triangle where the headline act pulls in the most punters.

Venosa’s gorgeous animations on the projector screen were replaced once more by a pixelated album cover image that looked like it had been pulled from someone’s mobile phone wallpaper – this time, for Edguy’s most recent Tinnitus Sanctus. Techs scurried about, one loading up the stage with beers for the band members, and the twenty or so most hardcore Edguy fans down the front started a chant. It was time to switch mindsets yet again: power metal time had arrived.

In stark contrast to Ensiferum’s theatrical stage entrance and Cynic’s casual “walk on” approach, the Edguy set started when each member ran onto stage, grinning like lunatics with raised fists to the crowd.  Last on stage was frontman Tobias Sammet, who seemed to unleash yet another wave of energy with his arrival, launching off into Dead Or Rock. Of the remaining punters, a number who had been hanging back rushed forward in anticipation; while several others were seen shaking their heads and heading back to the bar. Power metal is an acquired taste.

Tobias was chatty, cracking jokes with the crowd and explaining each song. No matter what you think of their music – even a fan would be hard-pressed to deny the cheese factor – it’s impossible to not get caught up in the vitality and enthusiasm that oozes off the stage when these guys play. They only thing they are serious about is having a great time, and it’s infectious. You have to hand it to them - they gave tonight’s tiny club turnout every bit as much of a show as they would give a European stadium crowd numbering in the tens of thousands.

The headliners played for an hour and a half, including songs from throughout their 18-year career: Vain Glory Opera (a song that Tobias jokingly explains they stole from fellow power metallers Europe, changing “a few chords at the end”), singalong Superheroes, and Mysteria (their “heaviest” song) among the list. They were enticed back on stage for an encore – King of Fools – and promised faithfully to come back to play Perth again.

It was a strong end to a strange evening – but then again, challenging the ear is what metal is all about, is it not?