A Viking, a pirate, and a witch walk into a bar. . .
Actually, this is no joke; rather, it’s Paganfest America III, a touring package of bands blending folk traditions, esoteric spirituality, and theatrics into heavy metal. This subgenre of heavy music is tough to define but easy to spot.
Turisas, for example, is perfect to headline Paganfest, as the band members arrive covered in black and red war paint, singing songs about Viking valor, and punctuating the whole thing with lacerating violin riffs. Nile, by contrast, may be singing mainly about ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, but musically is too brutal to fall under the “pagan metal’’ umbrella, and better suited for next month’s New England Metal and Hardcore Festival.
For further clarification, simply head to the Palladium in Worcester tonight, where Finland’s Turisas, Scotland’s Alestorm, Russia’s Arkona, and California-spawned Huntress deliver the Paganfest goods. Aversed, Wilderun, and the Flooding are also performing at Paganfest’s local stop.
Hugely popular in Europe, Paganfest first ventured to the United States in 2008, and Turisas was part of the undercard back then.
But things were percolating for the group, as the title of Turisas’ first album, “Battle Metal,’’ lent this style of music a catch-all slogan that still sticks. The band’s second album “The Varangian Way’’ is an epic about ancient Scandinavian conquests and considered a cornerstone for the style. Last year’s “Stand Up and Fight’’ picked up on some of the story lines of “The Varangian Way,’’ but songwriter and singer Mathias Nygård wove in contemporary themes as well. The record earned Turisas album and band of the year awards in Finland.
“This one was not a history lesson,’’ says Turisas violin player Olli Vänskä. “But many of the stories on the album show how history repeats itself. All the big empires ultimately fall. We like to keep it relevant. What is happening in the Middle East relates to these songs.’’
Theatrics are as important as relevance.
“Turisas is very much a live band,’’ says the violinist who started playing metal as a joke. “I was fooling around playing my violin through amps and suggested to the Turisas guys that they should let me do a solo.’’
Vänskä was quickly brought into the band to be a counterpoint to the electric guitar, and to embellish the bombast of keys and accordion.
Though burly sounding and imbued with both grandeur and history, Turisas, Vänskä says, has its “funny side.’’
“Our material sometimes needs to separate tongue from cheek,’’ he says.
And that can also be said about Alestorm, slotted into the micro-genre of “pirate metal.’’
Alestorm’s “Back Through Time’’ fuses power metal and sea chanteys into absurd roustabout anthems. Upending metal’s reputation for being deadly serious, Alestorm keyboard player Christopher Bowes assures that his band’s songs - such as the one about a rogue British navy officer traveling back in time to battle Vikings - are indeed rooted in historical fact.
But the band’s fiery riffage and general bad attitude is metal enough to defend it against accusations of being a novelty band.
Humor and history are not the only things separating Paganfest from other high-decibel tours. Two of the featured bands in Paganfest are fronted by women, which isn’t all that common in the metal trenches.
In the case of Arkona, singer Masha Scream performs in her native Russian. Her material is drawn from her own pagan beliefs, which she defines as being “in harmony with myself, with the world which surrounds me, to love and respect nature and our ancestors.’’
Over the past decade, she and the other members of Arkona have worked those themes into sprawling works of music that include traditional folk instrumentation alongside electric guitar shred and death-metal howls.
Jill Janus had been kicking around music as both a singer and DJ before connecting with musicians in LA’s metal scene. The new troupe dubbed itself Huntress. Janus says she grew up in New York state and joined a coven when she was 13 and relied on the Tarot to create her band’s kickoff single, “Eight of Swords.’’ Even if that’s made up, it’s a great back story for the album “Spell Eater,’’ due out next month, and one of the more molten doses of melodic metal to drip down the broadsword since Judas Priest’s heyday.
“The fantasy element in pagan metal is something you find in our music, too,’’ Janus says. “Musically, we’re more like a death-thrash band, but our stage show and imagery are rooted in fantasy.’’
While Janus says her come-hither appearance has drawn contempt from some metalheads, Huntress has found just the right tour, she says, for its inaugural national trek. After all, standing among Vikings smeared in war paint, woodland warriors, and booze-sodden pirates, a fetching witch will hardly seem out of place.Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.