Sirenia + Arkona + MindMaze @ Mod Club Theatre, Toronto, May 17, 2017

It’s unbearably hot in Toronto but that doesn’t prevent a wave of melodic metallers going to the stuffy Mod Club to catch a coheadlining stint from pagan metal horde Arkona celebrating their 15th anniversary and symphonic metallers Sirenia on their maiden Canadian jaunt. Arranging lineups based on a female vocalist irrespective of genre feels lazy and does a disservice to women in metal, choosing them on the basis of their genitals, but on the plus side it exposes attendees to bands they may never come across otherwise.

Support comes from Pennsylvania prog/power effort MindMaze. Formed in 2012 with three full-length recordings bearing their name already, the four-piece are steadfastly making an impression in the American melodic metal subterranean. Influences appear to evoke the likes of Dream Theater, Symphony X, Iron Maiden and Helloween, with riff-led power metal and progressive technique. Vocalist Sarah Teets is a commanding frontwoman with an accomplished powerful voice well geared to prog power and also plays the delicate flute introduction to “Destiny Calls”. These Americans may not be crafting compositions never heard before but their lengthy songs contain a commendable amount of variety in mood, technique and melody that is enough to sustain the attention throughout their set. Teets has no problem getting the crowd to rally behind her and MindMaze are rewarded with a thunderous ovation after their final note airs.

Bedecked in traditional Slavonic clothing and framed by banners with pagan symbolism, Russia’s most popular folk metal act Arkona take over, greeted by raucous cheers and a punishing pit. All eyes follow main musician Masha Scream; her emotive singing, wild throaty growls and tornado-like stage presence position her an a gloriously entertaining frontwoman. To the genre’s cynics, folk metal’s most beloved acts are considered light-hearted and lacking depth beyond popular patriotic posturing and beer-swilling ditties with folk instruments just for the sake of it. But Arkona are far more representative of the genre’s finer underexposed bands, brimming with sincere native passion and increasingly improving musical arrangements. Aside from Toronto’s Russian and perhaps Eastern European diaspora, tonight’s punters can’t understand Scream’s words yet the undying emotion in her vocals and the mature soundscapes evoking a time and place far away are clearly demarcated. For this reason, Arkona absorbs those uninterested in the more celebrated folk metal bands.

The majesty contained in these Russians’ hymns to tradition are multifaceted; “Na Strazhe Novyh Let” infuses progressive and atmospheric elements into bristling pagan passages, “Goi, Rode, Goi” wields thrashy rhythms and the heavily folk-infused “Zakliatie” strips the metal back and sees the fans sing along to onomatopoeic chants. Although all the ethnic instruments on the albums don’t appear live, the congregation is treated to bagpipes and flutes, perfect for recalling history from centuries ago. The only setback is Sergey Lazar’s largely inaudible guitar and this problem persists. The introduction to “Stenka na Stenku” wordlessly orders the venue to bisect itself and as the frolicking song gains momentum, a wall of death breaks out. Those who have seen Arkona live multiple times will be aware that this is the first of the one-two punch staple that concludes the show and sure enough, the band’s most popular song “Yarilo” bounces into action, celebrated with one final mosh pit before the Russians finish their set. Arkona really are a force of nature live and have once again conquered Toronto in style.

One wonders what the collective North American appetite is like for symphonic metallers Sirenia in comparison to the beloved Arkona, considering they have been granted a co-headlining trek on their debut outing to the continent. Unfortunately, a sizeable portion of the venue heads for the exit by the time these Norwegians walk on stage. Formed after Morten Veland left gothic metal highlight Tristania in 2001, Sirenia have released eight albums and were certainly talked about in positive adjectives in the earlier gothic metal years before embracing the more commercially viable symphonic metal and enduring a revolving door of female singers.

Tonight is their first excursion to Toronto and, as the band explains, is also Norwegian Constitution Day so each of the members wears a ceremonial ribbon bearing the Norwegian flag’s colours while small flags adorn the drum kit. Sirenia waste no time working through a set of lush pop-centric symphonic metal, focusing on the latter part of their discography, particularly last year’s Dim Days of Dolor. The likes of “Ashes to Ashes”, “My Destiny Coming to Pass” and “Lost in Life” receive an airing but the gothic metal songs from the first two albums are more sumptuous: “My Mind’s Eye”, “The Other Side” and “Meridian” feature more thought-out arrangements, more tangible guitar melodies and a velvet sense of gloom. New singer Emmanuelle Zoldan’s differs to her predecessors but she comfortably handles the earlier material. Interestingly, the four-piece opt out of having a live bassist and play backing tracks in their place. Keyboards are also taped and being a key component to the Norwegians’ sound so watching them feels particularly insubstantial, more so after Arkona’s eager performance. The show ends and the band humbly thanks the few remaining attendees. Sirenia’s Toronto debut is underwhelming and they would have been helped if they were playing with other bands in their genre rather than the boisterous black metal folk of Arkona, who have established themselves here with a few shows already. The two disparate audiences in attendance worked against Sirenia but Arkona’s performance made the night a great one.