It's not every metal show that begins with an all-acoustic set performed on violin, cello and classical guitar. The progressive neofolk project Musk Ox, founded by Ottawa's Nathanaël Larochette, kicked off the night at the Opera House with a lush, complex and deeply moving performance.
When Musk Ox opened for Agalloch in London, ON, in March 2011, it was only Larochette strumming intricate and emotive melodies. With the addition of cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist Evan Runge to the current lineup, their sound is much more powerful and enveloping. The plaintive melodies swelled and rippled, the instrumental set following a heart-rending narrative of loss. Hearing a room packed with metalheads all screaming their approval for such a delicate set with husky tear-stained voices was a thing to behold.
Next, Portland's psych-doom duo Taurus blasted the sweet cocoon of melancholy to shreds with a terrifying set. While Fellini-esque imagery was projected in the background, Stevie Floyd (Dark Castle) growled and ground out her voice, long hair falling around her face from beneath an Indiana Jones hat. The harshness of the technique she employed and the distortion applied to her voice made her sound at once robotic and awfully physical, like a machine shrieking in pain.
Drummer Ashley Spungin often stood to get better leverage as she pummelled the drums, smoke billowing out from behind her and lit with eerie blue light. Their work comes in the form of towering, alien soundscapes that unsettle and overwhelm, and while their album did an excellent job of crawling under the listeners skin, in a live setting the effect is genuinely frightening.
Headliners Agalloch proved once again that their combination of achingly beautiful instrumentation and passionate, skilful songwriting place them at the pinnacle of progressive, blackened folk metal. Their albums convey the complexity of their compositions, but the emotional impact of their music delivered from the stage in incomparable.
Though they tour rarely, their stage presence is staggering: guitarist Don Anderson often lifts his face up in ecstasy as he plays, and John Haughm's vocals have a piercing, verdant quality, like a sharpened shard of green willow. The band members allow themselves to be taken and possessed by the performance, which allows the audience, in turn, to be completely enveloped by it as well.
Their song choices strayed towards their longer pieces: they played the entirety of their new EP, Faustian Echoes, as well as both parts of "Our Fortress Is Burning..." allowing the energy of the set to build and burn. The highlight of the performance, however, came at the end, with a swelling, somehow both sneering and uplifting version of "Kneel to the Cross," which closed the main part of their set, and the encore "Dead Winter Days." The balance of chill and thaw, emotion and power, vulnerability and violence, was perfect.