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Stella Natura: A Personal Account

Words and Photography by Heimlich & Co.

I cannot pretend to write an objective “review” of something as remarkable as this, the second (and much more ambitious) Stella Natura festival. Yet I feel so renewed and inspired by the experience that I need to share an account of the proceedings.

My Ironwood band mate Matthew Raymond arrived in Portland, Oregon the Sunday before Stella Natura. It was a grueling flight from Sydney, Australia, but he held up stoically as we headed from airport to café breakfast and home.

We hadn’t seen each other in almost 18 months, and I later realized that seeing him again felt like a kind of soul retrieval; I reclaimed something I’d left in Sydney when I moved to Portland, Oregon in May, 2011 to marry my now wife, Arrowyn (also known as the empress of Hex Magazine).

We had two days before the long drive to the Sierra Nevadas, and we had set ourselves a challenge: to take the full range of Ironwood’s compositions – black metal, progressive rock, neofolk – and turn them into two-man, acoustic guitar, electric bass arrangements.

It was hard to have not played together for so long before having to frantically get our set together. The more technical material – difficult even with electric guitar – was a tough challenge on acoustic instrumentation, but Matt gracefully mastered it.

Wednesday saw an epic drive – 11 hours in total. I had never spent any time in California before, and the northern California landscape – so reminiscent of the Australian countryside – was a surreal and beautiful sight. Finally we breached the mountains and ascended the lofty forests in the failing evening light.

Thursday came, the day before the festival. We rehearsed as much as we could, as well as exploring the exquisite natural beauty of the location. Already many friends were gathering, including some who I had known only by electronic means and others I who made for the first time.

Thursday night ended with a wonderful fireside jam session. I was fortunate enough to make friends with a lute, and discovered that amazing fun can be had with a 15-string proto-guitar (thanks, Preston!).

The first hint of Stella Natura’s promise came as Matt and I went to collect our wrist bands for the festival. On the way we met none other than Robert Taylor of Changes. He was energetic, witty, and all class. Such talent, wisdom, humanity, and humility! Our conversation, rich and playful, set the tone of the whole weekend.

Hex had a merchant stall which we set up in the afternoon (and which thankfully did great business)…just in time for the opening performance, Finnish ritual ambient maestros Arktau Eos. Arktau Eos wove arcane soundscapes as part of a ceremony to invoke positive spirits for the land and the gathering.

At the climax of Arktau Eos’s performance they invited audience members to join in a circle of running, skipping, cavorting celebrants. I realized that this was a perfect, unrepeatable moment, and took the chance to dive into the whirling throng. It was most Dionysian experience.

And so the relentless pace of performances began. The festival had two stages, both in stunning outdoor wilderness settings. The performances alternated from stage to stage, allowing plenty of time for bands to prepare and sound check, with little or no delay between one set and the next. This format ensured that 30+ bands could be fitted into the time available, although it pushed my stamina to the limit – especially since I also needed to help tend the Hex stall.

I got to see some amazing performances on Friday (though I did not by any means catch every performer). River unleashed their magical forest folk music early on, and set me resonating with intense joy. I have immense admiration for these maestros; they bring great passion and inspiration to their craft.

A little later Lasher Keen brought their flamboyant and ecstatic music to the stage. They sent us plunging into an ancient and untamable world. Their easy virtuosity and sheer wildness is always impressive, but for this performance they truly conquered, not least by means of some inspired theatrics! A band through which the very gods walk the earth.

In the mid-evening I got to catch two more performances: Ash Borer, who unleashed some genuinely eerie and powerful black metal; and Hell, who unleashed a cathartic – and crushing – doom metal onslaught.

Somewhere during the day we made more new friends – including connecting with Damon and Justin from Mournful Congregation. It felt good to have such strong Australian contingent at Stella Natura; meeting some of my greatest musical heroes left me more than a little star-struck). We also found a warm connection with the gifted Mr Shawn Haché of Mitochondrion (and Heathen Harvest) fame.

Which brings me to the first two headlining acts of the festival. Finnish trio Tuhkankantajat were exquisite; their unique marriage of lounge music and neofolk translated perfected into the live milieu. I’ve admired them for a very long time but never expected to see them in the flesh, so it was a great privilege. Later I got to talk for some time with their front man Aki Cedarberg, who demonstrated great wisdom, humor, and talent.

Following Tuhkankantajat was Sabbath Assembly, whose music represents a resuscitation of the Process Church, a curious American sect who venerated Lucifer as readily as they did Christ. Sabbath Assembly conjured a menacing, eerie dreamscape; 1970’s retro by way of the aesthetic of David Lynch. Special mention must be made of their insanely brilliant drummer’s talents.

After midnight two fireside acts were scheduled. Arrowyn was ready for bed, but Matt and I stayed up to witness Hooded Archer, who performed a set of acoustic black metal, complete with tremolo picked acoustic guitars and screeching vocals. I gazed on the heavy belt of stars above and let the refrains carry me into animistic reverie.

The next day Ironwood performed in the early afternoon. We had a great time with our sound engineer and stage manager, who looked after us very well. The sound was fantastic and, when the time came, the audience was truly wonderful. It was a profound honor to perform at Stella Natura.

As the elation our set gradually cooled, we celebrated Arrowyn’s birthday with cake made by Lasher Keen’s own Bluebird. As a perfect present, Changes then commenced performing. I found myself reduced to tears by these two founding figures of neofolk, and I wasn’t the only one to be moved by their songs. The open air stage, the crisp mountains and forests, and the entwined voices of Robert and Nicholas combined to create sensory perfection.

I was unfortunate enough to miss C.O.T.A., but managed to get across to see Waldteufel in the late afternoon. These fine gentlemen always manage to produce something special, but their raucous genius was especially potent that day, and they whipped us into a wild fervor. The climax of the show came with frontman Markus Wolff leaping from the stage, slamming cymbals together like a madman, and dancing barefoot on open flames!

After Waldteufel I caught the latter part of Aerial Ruin’s set. This solo artist – aka Erik – has always impressed me with his rich acoustic guitar and pensive vocals, and he created a mellow and dreamy microcosm as dusk set in.

With night’s arrival, dark folk trio Vradiazei spun an intricate web of shadow and grace with their guitar/banjo/violin thread. The sound was particularly good for their set, and they shone with dark light.

And then…Blood Axis. Chaos! Madness! Virtuosity! Annabel Moynihan’s fiddle mastery, Aaron Garland’s use of e-bow on bass, Robert Ferbrache’s razor-sharp tremolo picking, and Michael Moynihan’s excellent bodhran work all impressed me.

The music was playful, aggressive, and richly resonant with ancient voices and lost secrets. By the end, as the band led the audience in an Odin-themed mantra derived from Sanskrit tradition, I floated in a state of profound joy. The set was dominated by songs from their newest album, Born Again, and that suited me down to the ground.

At the late-night fireside Lasher Keen, Knotwork, and Changes lathed us with more folk song pleasures, until I stumbled away into bed, wood-smoke and starlight diffusing my consciousness.

By Sunday I was, I admit, glutted on good music, profound conversations, beautiful moments, new connections, and great food. Apart from the music and people, there were also many wonderful merchants, selling all manner of music, incense, mead, clothes, artwork, and chocolate! Our home is set to be decorated with many a new acquisition.

As the day unfolded I managed to absorb a mind-blowing set of doom-inflected black metal from Hail, and a similarly mind-blowing set of skull-shattering black metal fury from L’Acephale. Later, though stationed at the Hex stall, we were wowed by the sound of sets by Wolveserpent and Aluk Todolo, who performed on the stage adjacent to the merchant area.

And then: Mournful Congregation. I have seen these fine gentlemen once before, but this performance was truly superhuman. Perfect sound, flawless performances, and such tremendous passion and intensity. Mournful brought the whole festival to a standstill, an overwhelming climax to a peak experience without compare.

After Mournful Congregation I took in the sounds of Arktau Eos’s closing ritual, which was graced with its fair share of falling stars. I talked and danced into the late, cold mountain air, before retreating for the night.

The next morning was a crazed scramble, gathering all our things, bundling into an overloaded car, saying many a goodbye. A leisurely café breakfast with many good friends down in Nevada City. An epic drive back home.

In the aftermath of Stella Natura, Ironwood performed in Portland with Waldteufel and River, and were again blessed with a wonderful audience. A string of similar spin-off performances happened all along the West Coast, for which we were grateful. In particular, this enabled us to see Spanish band Sangre de Muerdago, who were truly brilliant, but who we missed at the festival.

This account misses many, many details. Stella Natura was an incredible meeting of spirits. It was so much more than just a festival; it was a conclave of art, magic, and joy without peer. It was founded in love, sincerity, and reverence: a vortex of tremendous spiritual nourishment.

Organizer Adam Collins-Torruella created a priceless gift for all who attended. It was a difficult undertaking for him in so many ways, but he stayed the course and the festival swept into existence with tremendous grace.

Others also deserve acknowledgement – volunteer coordinator Nadine and her many dedicated cohorts; the wonderful stage, sound, and video crews; and the lovely custodians of the venue where the event was held.

And of course, everyone that attended deserves thanks. With some 500 attendees, who knew that there could ever be such a critical mass of post-industrial music lovers?

The good news is that it seems likely that Stella Natura will return next year. I pray that it does! With the experience and grounding of this year, it seems pretty much guaranteed to be even more incredible. We live in a grim and often depressing world, but my experience at Stella Natura has reaffirmed for me the power and importance of saying “yes!” and cultivating a lust for life.