Snow, Booze, and Blood: Icelandic Black Metal Is Still on Top
Svartidauði, Misþyrming, Wormlust, Sinmara, and more dominated Iceland's first international black metal festival.
Mannveira / All photos by Laufey Elíasdóttir
A group of figures in black leather huddled outside a bar in downtown Reykjavik, nipping swings from an Irish friend’s bottle of gin and talking about hip-hop. It was snowing, and as I kept my ears half-cocked towards the door to make sure I didn’t miss the next band, a burly man with a shaved head and ice-blue eyes told us with a scoff that a local publication had declared 2015 to be “the year of Icelandic hip-hop.” According to him, “everyone knows it was really the year of Icelandic black metal.” Heads around us nodded in affirmation as the bottle made its way around again.
As usual, Sturla Viðar is not wrong—far from it. As a founding member of Svartidauði, one of Iceland’s most successful black metal bands, he’s in a unique position to gauge its recent groundswell of global popularity. Formed in 2006, Viðar and his bandmates are the OGs of the Icelandic scene; along with their contemporaries in Wormlust, they’ve been plying their chaotic, complex, brutally dissonant trade for over a decade—since before some of the scene’s current members had even learned how to play guitar. As he told me with a wicked grin, “We were playing Icelandic black metal before it was cool.” It seemed fitting, then, that they were slated to playthe first night of Oration MMXVI—the country’s first-ever international black metal festival—with a clutch of up-and-comers who’ve spent the last couple of years sending shockwaves of their own throughout the international underground.
Oration MMXVI was the brainchild of Stephen Lockhart, an Irishman turned Reykjavik resident whose Studio Emissary has turned out some of the current Icelandic scene’s most revered records. In addition to his work behind the board, he’s also a musician himself—and played three sets this past weekend with Noisey faves Sinmara, Slidhr, and his long-running project Rebirth of Nefast, who delivered one of the weekend’s most harrowing performances from beneath billowing pitch-black robes.
“It felt utterly euphoric getting off stage after Rebirth of Nefast. The amount of work that has gone into this, the amount of mental preparation that was needed to decide to do this in the first place, for the first time after 10 years. The amount of things that could have gone wrong but didn't,” Lockhart told me. “There were a lot of technical variables that could have led to this show being a complete mess, but genuinely, in my eyes, it couldn't have gone better. To me personally, this show going well weighed as heavily as the whole festival going well, so to say that a weight has being lifted is an understatement. I still feels a little unreal that it actually happened and that it's execution was pretty much exactly how I always envisioned it!”
I didn’t see the sun for days when I was there—just the moon, a silent sentinel over a violet twilit sky, and then, later, nothing. The nights seemed bright, though, thanks to the drifts of of snow glowing gently in the darkness, and the flickering lights of downtown Reykjavik—a city that, as far as I could tell, never really sleeps. Atmosphere is everything when it comes to this kind of small, intimate event, and even though attendees were ushered out early (by Icelandic standards) each night to make room for a techno dance party, Húrra felt like the perfect location. It was small, with dark wood paneling and affable bartenders, located in the heart of town, and a convenient stumble away from a multitude of bars for the inevitable after-parties. The aforementioned curfew led a surrealist edge to the happenings—it'll never not be funny to see drunk metalheads kitted out in patches and leather boogying to pop hits after an evening of intense, punishing extreme music (and will never not be fun to be one of said metalheads, either).
It was a weekend of beginnings, marking the first ever shows of Rebirth of Nefast, Wormlust, and Almyrkvi, and debut Icelandic appearances from Slidhr, Shrine of Insanabilis (Germany), and Malthusian (Ireland). It was Israeli occultists Mortuus Umbra’s first international show ever, and while they were perhaps the most surprising addition to the Oration lineup, it all made sense once they hit the stage and locked into their hypnotic black/death groove. Lockhart first met the band via email, when his work on albums by Sinmara and Svartidauði caught their ear; he ended up mixing and mastering their last EP, Catechism, and remained in touch. According to their bassist, they've got a new record and a European tour planned for later this year, too, so expect to be hearing more about Mortuus Umbra soon.
I saw Lockhart for about ten minutes total all weekend as he bounded through the venue putting out fires, watching the clock, and generally overseeing an event that spanned two days and fourteen bands from four countries. Despite a few technical difficulties during Wormlust’s set and the odd snapped string (have mercy on that bass, Gústaf!), Oration MMXVI truly seemed to go off without a hitch, with the quickest changeover times I’ve ever seen. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the bands were sharing the same gear—and often, the same musicians.
“You might have noticed that there was the usual amount of member-swapping you would expect from the Icelandic scene. I think most everyone in Sinmara was playing minimum 3 shows,” Lockhart chuckled. “Bjarni (drummer of Sinmara, Slidhr, Wormlust, Almyrkvi) on the other hand, played 4 shows. With the sheer amount of rehearsing going on the for the last few weeks and months, he's been utterly pushed to the brink, to the point that we were worried during the festival if he was going make it though. We'll have to send him to a day spa now, I suppose.”
Judging from what I saw, everyone involved deserves at least a nice backrub (or a couple of beers) for their efforts. Whether we were being confronted by Almyrkvi’s arresting cosmic aura, Misþyrming’s explosive stage presence, or Malthusian’s wonderfully slimy sonic density, there wasn’t a weak link in the bunch. It’s impossible to really “review” an event like this, where every act is quality and no one really fucks up, but in terms of who stuck out most, NYIÞ’s Saturday night performance was out of this world. Not that they were “far-out” or psychedelic, mind you—they truly seemed not of this earth as they carefully, purposefully initiated a ritualistic tableau of braying horns, droning ambiance, executioner’s hoods, and booming, baritone intonations. Mesmerized, the audience swayed along with them, until, out of nowhere, came a huge, jarring cacophonous blast that nearly made my heart stop.
I’ve had a soft spot for Misþyrming since I first saw them at Eistnaflug several years ago. Thanks to their stunning debut, Söngvar elds og óreiðu, the band has had the chance to hone their live chops at a variety of international festivals, and all that extra practice shows in their larger-than-life stage presence. They’re absolute animals onstage, a sweaty, kinetic blur of black paint and muscle and metal strings—the front row was packed, and the crowd went mad when they unveiled two new songs. With their Artist Residency at Roadburn rapidly approaching and a new album in the works, the guys know that the pressure is on—and they seem more than prepared to meet the challenge. If Svartidauði are the reigning kings of Icelandic black metal, Misþyrming are their anointed heirs.
As far as other highlights go, Svartidauði is a given. As expected, their headlining set on Friday night was textured, cathartic, and ruthlessly violent, sparking the weekend’s first and only mosh pit (I saw more than one bloodied figure staggering out of its grasp). Their imposing presence onstage was augmented by smeared paint and black bandanas, and even at a festival primarily populated by bands wearing hoods, robes, and corpsepaint, they managed to look the scariest. At the after-after party, Viðar showed me the inspiration for Svartidauði's stagewear—Wu Tang Clan’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ video, which makes a weird kind of sense. Game recognize game.
Abominor's aggressive display of black/death malevolence was excellent, and even though Almyrkvi mastermind Garðar Jónsson was up there playing his first show with this new project (his primary gig is with Sinmara), the band's tight, compact performance was an immediate standout—I saw more than a few jaws drop as he wended his way through a bevy of expansive, innovative riffs. The melodic touches were a welcome break from the outright harshness that characterized much of the bill; when you're putting on a single-genre fest, those small differences end up mattering a great deal, and Almyrkvi was a definite standout.
I was also extremely impressed by Mannveira; the first time I saw them, it was in a dank, crowded basement, and even then, I was hooked. Now, given the benefit of an actual sound system and proper stage, they were absolutely incredible (especially their vocalist Illugi, a haunting spectre with an anguished, earth-shaking howl), and segued beautifully into Wormlust’s dissonant, ambitious compositions.
Though momentarily stymied by technical issues, Hafsteinn’s focus was absolute—this marked Wormlust’s first live performance, and witnessing how well the complexity of the band’s watershed album, The Feral Wisdom, was conveyed onstage gave me immediate hope that I could convince them to come play over here. After all, Sinmara and Slidhr made their American debuts just a few months ago, and Svartidauði is playing this year’s Maryland Death Fest; surely a true Icelandic invasion can’t be that far behind?
A girl can dream, but for now, we’ve got the next incarnation of Oration to look forward to—Lockhart’s already plotting 2017. “After the success of this weekend, most definitely!” he told me the dust had cleared and he was able to take a breather. “Oration being an annual thing has always been in the back of my mind, but there was an element of waiting to see how it went this time around before making any concrete decisions. But it's settled; Oration MMXVII is happening.”
You've been warned.
See more Oration MMXVI photos here.
Kim Kelly is hækka helvíti on Twitter.