Like ancient Pagans coming together around a Yule bonfire in celebration of hope and rebirth offered by the light of the sun, as well as to reflect with gratitude on the seasons passed, Waylander’s Winter Solstice gig supporting latest album Ériú’s Wheel was in many ways a gathering. Despite being an early show, the room was filled before support band Overoth had even started their set. People meeting old friends and catching up with each other with warm embraces and warmer smiles set a tone that continued right through to the end. Before they’d even played a single note, it was clear that Overoth meant business. Their aesthetic being a big part of their live shows, the band members were adorned in various shades of black and grey, with smudge-like face paint giving them a look that suggested they’d recently risen from a grave or tomb somewhere, perhaps to play the show and then return from whence they came. The effort put into their aesthetic isn’t vain or nonsensical. Armed with an attention to detail that included burning incense, placing animal and human skull props alongside candles around the drum kit, and setting lanterns at the front of the stage, the band created an atmospheric table upon which they laid their ferocious barrage of death metal. The verisimilitude of the band’s aesthetic made it that much more hilarious between songs when frontman Andy Ennis hydrated using a shiny, colourful water bottle patterned with little sunflowers. The contrast of this against his bone necklace and intense vocal growls actually made it quite endearing.
Opening with ‘Sigil of the Empty Throne’ and following it up with the suitably titled ‘Winter of Iniquity’, right from the start it was clear that Overoth were in great form, both musically and otherwise. And they wanted the crowd to share in that. Aware that it was early in the night, Andy persistently and voraciously encouraged the crowd between and during songs to fist-pump, chant, headbang, and to move closer to the stage. His efforts weren’t in vain. Playing a set that was comprised equally of songs from 2017’s The Forgotten Tome as well as new material, the band were as tight as they’ve ever been, with Andy and drummer Cameron holding down the brutal, feral foundations of the songs while guitarists Daniel and Andrew flawlessly blitzed through riff after mighty riff, garnishing songs with tasty solos that highlighted the effectiveness of venue Voodoo’s sound quality, and the talents of soundman Andrew Cole at Beard Noise Sound Services. Before long, the smile on the frontman’s face was contagiously ecstatic as he looked down on those in the crowd who were getting into it, shouting and singing along with fists and horns raised, and banging their heads. Two standout tracks from the performance were album title track ‘The Forgotten Tome’ and new song ‘Ghost of the Black Tide’, both of which featured impressively explosive and sagely-timed drum fills. The latter track had a great sense of atmosphere to it, closing the set with melodic vocal notes that were delivered away from the microphone so as to embed them within the music as opposed to on top of it. It’s a good time to be an Overoth fan, and their set supporting Waylander has only increased anticipation for their next release.
With the crowd sufficiently warmed up, the anticipation in the room was palpable. And for good reason. Having formed more than two decades ago, Waylander is a highly experienced, seasoned, and influential band. The influence was notable considering members of other local bands were peppered throughout the room, including Cursed Sun, Spirit Ruiner, Scimitar, and Drakonis, the latter of whom share three members, namely Saul McMichael, Steve Reynolds, and Lee McCartney, with the headline act. Despite having only released five full-length albums in their almost-a-quarter-century existence, the band has a fervent and loyal following, as seen by the number of people who came to hear them play not one but two sets. Some people did a double-take at the flag raised at the front of the crowd, for it wasn’t one that those uninterested in GAA would be familiar with. It was the orange and white striped flag of Armagh, the county from which Waylander hail. Suggesting dedication through travel or else pride of place, passion, and culture, or both, the flag was emblematic of the connection between the band and its fans.
As it had been a while since they last played Belfast, the idea to play two sets was well-judged. The first was newest release Ériú’s Wheel played in full, to get the crowd caught up with where the band is at and what they’ve been up to since their last gig here, while their second set consisted of tracks from their previous offerings. Both went down well.
Like on the album itself, the sound of a crackling fire was heard between songs of the Ériú’s Wheel set, which leant a perfect aural atmosphere to the music, connecting the songs together and enhancing the album’s concept. Based on Celtic beliefs of time being not linear but cyclical like the seasons, the album charts the wheel of time followed by Celts and pagans. Starting with ‘As Samhain Comes’, detailing the rites and beliefs of what was then the new year, lyrics such as ‘the past, the present, the future are as one’ and ‘in darkness we meet’ could have been describing the gig itself as much as they could have been about historical people. The sound of the crackling fire leant a fireside storytelling feel to frontman Ard Chieftan O’Hagan’s voice between songs as he delivered brief history lessons, his accent aiding the enthralling way he spoke about the ways of those who came before us. Moving the wheel song by song, the band explored the different sabbats and festivals of the Celts and pagans, including the all-important date on which the gig took place, the Winter Solstice, which the song ‘Shortest Day, Longest Night’ tackled with a sense of hope and resilience. Again, lyrics like ‘illuminating hearts and minds, our dreams alive once more’ describe the ancient experience as well as the feelings of inspiration and rejuvenation shared by many who attended the show.
An almost alchemical blend of traditional Celtic instrumentation and musical approach with harsher, faster and more extreme elements of folk and black metal, Waylander have a very distinct style that they are masters of. Every instrument came together to create a thickly-layered wall of sound that invoked a unified and intense, almost primal feeling in the room. Hearing the beautiful tin whistle, played expertly by Dave Briggs, soar and lilt above the rest of the instruments was nothing short of exquisite, and inspired or awakened a sense of musical, cultural, and national pride. By the time the first set ended with single ‘Autumnal Blaze’, it seemed as though the entire room was singing along in tandem to the song’s chorus of ‘Reap! Reap what we have sown’.
After a short break, the band were back on stage to play songs spanning the rest of their career, a set which definitely had a celebratory feel to it. There seemed to be a reciprocal atmosphere of warmth and gratitude between the band and the crowd, which only intensified after the announcement that the show would be bassist Steve Reynolds’s last outing with them. Instead of letting the news be upsetting, there was a roar of cheers and affirmation from those in attendance, a sonic warmth aimed directly at the Drakonis frontman. By the time fan favourite track ‘Born to the Fight’ mimicked a bolt of lightning and jolted the crowd to sing, dance, and headbang more furiously than they’d already been doing, it was clear that the gig was a resounding success and one that many people will remember fondly for some time to come. A Warm light in the black heart of Winter.
Review: Mark Russell
Photography: Wayne Donaldson