We spent a weekend way up North worshipping black metal and dancing to Perturbator beneath the midnight sun.
Photo by Heiner Bach
2016 marked my third time attending Eistnaflug, Iceland’s biggest, silliest, and most beloved metal (and more) festival. Since 2014, I’ve been making the yearly pilgrimage to Neskaupstaður, a sleepy fishing village nestled between verdant, snow-dotted hills and imposing fjords, all backlit by a Northern sun that never sleeps. It's no easy feat to attend (let alone play) Eistnaflug, so once you're there, you can be sure that everyone around you really, really wanted to be there, too. Eastern Iceland is beautiful, and alien, and altogether breathtaking, on par with hiking through the Painted Desert or peeking down into the Grand Canyon. To get there, you can either drive—it takes roughly 12 hours, depending on how often you stop to gawk at glaciers and take selfies by sheets of ice—or, you can take an hour’s flight from Reykjavik on an itty-bitty plane, and spend another hour on a bus.
The bus ride is picturesque, if a bit nerve-wracking. The vehicle careens along spindly roads and through a one-way tunnel bored through the very heart of a mountain, past babbling brooks, burbling waterfalls, and endless waves of green grass studded with fluffy white sheep and canny black rams picking their way across the rough, volcano-forged landscape. Then, once you clear the tunnel, the fjords come into view, looming protectively above the small, bright clapboard houses and lone gas station that make up this tiny speck of civilization.
Here, for a weekend at least, thousands of metalheads, punks, and music fans of nearly every stripe gather to revel, to rage, and to savor the chance to catch performances from the kind of legendary international bands who rarely grace Iceland’s shores.This year, the biggest names were Opeth, Meshuggah, and Amorphis, followed closely by Belphegor, Immolation, and Marduk. A flock of dizzyingly diverse Icelandic acts rounded out the bill, with a strong showing from the island’s homegrown black metal scene. We’ve covered the latter fairly extensively here on Noisey, because I genuinely think that Reykjavik is one of the most exciting hotspots for the genre in the world right now, up there with Trondheim and Dublin.
Misþyrming / Photo by Estefânia Silva
This year’s edition of Eistnaflug brought the main representatives out in full force, with Misþyrming dominating the mainstage in the early hours and rising stars Naðra, Sinmara, Almyrkvi, and Mannveira in particular delivering standout sets at the secondary venue, Egilsbúð. There’s a commonality binding most of these bands together; a pronounced visual aesthetic, for sure (these dudes singlehandedly keep Reykjavik’s supply of black greasepaint low), but more importantly, a personal one. Most of the bands in this small, tightly-knit group share one (or more) members; they’ve grown up together, gotten into black metal together, and have now banded together to make their mark on the rest of the world. Tómas Ísdal plays in more bands than I can keep track of anymore, with Dagur Gonzales, Bjarni Einarsson, Örlygur Sigurðarson, and Garðar S. Jónsson not far behind—between them, they man Misþyrming, Sinmara, Almyrkvi, Naðra, Grafir, Mannveira, and a few other non-Eistnaflug projects like Wormlust, Carpe Noctem, Null, and Slidhr. You wonder how they pull it off, but once one considers their age (most of these dudes are in their early twenties), the lack of shit to do in Reykjavik, and the sheer passion it takes to keep a band going in such an isolated, corrupt, exorbitantly expensive place, it starts to make sense.
That firm sense of community is a massive part of Eistnaflug, whose staff pride themselves on fostering a welcoming, inclusive environment. The slogan “no assholes allowed” is emblazoned on everything from festival hoodies to the official poster, and as organizer Stefán “Stebbi” Magnússon told me, that sentiment has been a core Eistnaflug value since day one.
“There has been shitty behavior at other festivals in Iceland for many years, and we are trying to spread the word—no assholes. It’s working, and other festivals know they have to think about this,” he explained. It’s a small enough gesture, but one that carries quite a lot of weight in a country that still continues to struggle with preventing sexual assault. Flyers from Druslugangan—Iceland’s answer to Slutwalk—could also be seen all over the Eistnaflug venues, offering further support; as they said, “You have the right to party without being harassed or abused...you don’t have to deal with that shit alone.”
And you’re never alone at Eistnaflug. The festival’s wildly diverse lineup ensures that there really is something for everyone; in past years, I’ve seen feminist hip-hop acts, performance art, legendary death metal bands, indie rockers, middle-aged punks, glittery techno DJs, and more. The main focus remains on metal, of course, especially on the smaller stage, where you’ve got a better chance of encountering something new, or strange—or, ideally, both.
Eistnaflug has long served as an incubator for rough, talented new bands to cut their teeth—a supportive proving ground for younger bands to hone their stage presence and get shit tight before leaving the nest (or the island). With that in mind, it was fantastic to see black metal fledgelings Almyrkvi take full advantage of that low-pressure setting to deliver a high-quality dazzler of a performance. The project came into being less than a year ago; initially envisioned as a solo effort by Garðar S. Jónsson (also of Sinmara), the band’s lineup has swelled to include a number of live counterparts, and has already released a well-received EP on Ván Records. At Eistnaflug, Almyrkvi’s psychedelic and industrial influences shone brightly through the murk, drawing a clear line between them and many of their more orthodox peers in Reykjavik. It’s so important to be able to see a band whose recordings you enjoy play those songs live, and in Almyrkvi’s case, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Photo by Estefânia Silva
Eistnaflug’s intimate vibe also gives baby bands a chance to learn how to deal with some of the harsher realities of playing festivals—like, for example, being scheduled to play smack dab in the middle of the headliners’ set. That’s exactly what happened to Grafir, who took the stage just as Opeth were hitting their stride. With no disrespect to the Swedes, though, I feel bad for the people who chose them over Grafir, because theirs ended up being one of my very favorite performances of the entire weekend. Though they’ve got ties to the black metal scene, this band has little in common with the fire and brimstone of most of the Reykjavik crew. They keep some of that black metal grit, but their curious, unpolished take on metalpunk veers sharply towards goth and post-punk. Benedikt Steinar Vésteinsson’s rich, sonorous voice has a unique sort of strangeness about it that’s hard to pin down (though he’s way more Pete Steele than Per Yngve Ohlin), and the band’s onstage exertations feel manic and urgent. I ended up kicking myself for showing up late thanks to Opeth; the two songs I saw from Michael Åkerfeldt & Co. were masterfully executed, but nowhere near as exciting as what these wild Icelandic youngsters were thrashing out onstage in front of fourteen people at Egilsbúð.
Eistnaflug plays host to so many great extreme bands and oddball artists that is can be a bit exhausting trying to see everything; I’m still mourning the fact that I missed so many sweet bands this year (and promise to be down the front next year, especially for Mannveira). Being able to catch rising technical black metal stars Zhrine on the mainstage and see black/death stalwarts Angist reborn in black and white at Egilsbúð was worth the trip alone, without even mentioning Sólstafir’s perennial grandiosity, World Narcosis’ abrasive blasts of hardcore, grind, noise, and doom, and, of course, Urðun’s lovingly satirical (and immensely satisfying) 90s death metal tribute—spiked codpiece and all.
You can always count on big international bands like Marduk, Immolation, and Meshuggah (whose god-level technical prowess is blindingly impressive, whether you like them or not), which is why I didn’t spend much time watching them. I come to Eistnaflug to learn and discover, not to pay tribute to established bands; it’s where I first encountered Misþyrming and Naðra, the bands who were my gateway into Iceland’s volcanic black metal scene. It’s where, this year, I truly got hooked on Grafir, lost my mind over Dulvitund, and saw Sinmara truly come into their own as a live force.
Photo by Estefânia Silva
That same spirit of discovery led people to Kælan Mikla’s intoxicating coldwave, Abominor’s vicious black/death, Dulvitund’s abrasive take on dark ambient, the Vintage Caravan's soulful throwback rock'n'roll, and Goresquad’s pinch harmonic-perfect brand of old-school death metal (to say nothing of Gloryride’s exuberant power metal or Narthraal’s death metal fantasy world). It also resulted in one of the defining moments of the weekend: Perturbator’s set. I wasn't sure how well he'd go over, given the heavily metal-focused crowd, but once the French retro wave phenomenon took the smoke-shrouded stage, shit popped off.
After a weekend of blastbeats and experimental squalls, all it took was one man, a laptop, and a seemingly endless stream of glossy synthesizer bangers to command the rapt attention of everyone present and get everyone dancing (and trust me, that room was packed). You haven’t truly lived until you’ve spent an entire day drinking, watching killer black metal bands, and dancing your ass off for hours in a roomful of joyful, drunk metalheads—and then seen the organizer of a major international festival go crowd-surfing past your head to a soundtrack of slick Night Rider beats.
Only at Eistnaflug!