@ The Cluny, Newcastle, July 28 2012

Skip back a few years and the words ‘British black metal’ would have implied the high-pitched goth shock of Cradle of Filth, the proto thrash of Venom… and precious little else.

But British black metal is now a force to be reckoned with, thanks to the likes of Fen, Winterfylleth and this show’s co-headliners – bands who have forged their own, distinct identities and draw on influences, from folk to shoegaze, which set them apart from Scandinavia’s corpse painted hordes. 

North West England’s A Forest of Stars, currently touring in support of their third album, A Shadowplay For Yesterdays, are one of British BM’s more intriguing outfits.

A self-styled ‘Victorian Gentleman’s Club’, they dress like 19th century industrialists who might drink Absinthe and dabble in the occult after hours… and they have a violinist/flautist called Katheryne, Queen of the Ghosts, in their ranks.

So it was a shame that a stuttering start, technical gremlins and a broken string threw spanners into the band’s antique clockwork at The Cluny.

Nevertheless, the seven-piece were, at times, utterly spellbinding, holding the audience in a trance that was only broken by loud, appreciative applause.

Mixing psychedelica, spaced-our prog and dark Victoriana into a black metal cauldron, A Forest of Stars were as eccentrically English as a Danny Boyle opening ceremony – letting their audience settle was never on the agenda.

Complemented by an atmospheric light show, they produced a mesmeric performance that John Peel, whose photo adorns The Cluny’s brickwork, would surely have approved of; an audio-visual treat that might yet make a few North East metallers swap their bullet belts for cummerbunds.

Sunderland’s Wodensthrone, however, are a more direct proposition, blending a ferocious BM assault with sweeping, epic moments and surging, thunderous rhythms.

Any concerns that their live performances would be blunted by last year’s departure of vocalist Brunwulf proved unfounded here: guitarists Wildeþrýð and Rædwalh shared vocal duties on recent Rushonrock-rated Album of the Week, Curse, and the duo spearheaded this set with professionalism, passion and primal fury.

Yes, they let the music do the talking (it’s unusual for BM front men to exchange jovial banter with the audience), but when you have tracks as powerful and stirring as Jormungandr and The Great Darkness in your locker, why waste time with niceties?

The downside of the quintet’s co-headlining position was a short(ish) setlist that drew heavily from Curse but only gave us one nugget (Heófungtid) from Loss, their stunning 2009 opus – lauded on release as one of the best BM debuts of all time.

That said, there was no lack of value to this showcase, which also featured support slots from Edinburgh’s Haar and North Easterners Old Corpse Road.

And Wodensthrone, making a relatively rare appearance close to their home patch, were greeted like conquering heroes.

Taking place close to where Venom recorded the seminal Welcome To Hell and Black Metal albums some 30 years ago, this gig was a reminder – a celebration even – of how far BM has come, and why this genre can be so exciting, especially on its outer fringes. A night to remember.

Richard Holmes