For the third and final instalment of Oration, Never Mind The Hype travelled all the way to Reykjavik for three days of gnarly noise, evil riffs and the darkest of rituals. Oration is a black metal festival, organised by the label that goes by the same name. That label is owned by Stephen Lockhart: an Irishman living in Iceland, who also happens to own the renowned Studio Emissary. Since the first edition, Oration grew from an event organised by and for the local black metal scene into a three-day event with visitors from all over the globe. The final bill was graced by both internationally praised underground acts like Aluk Todolo, Asagraum, Vemod and Virus and local heavyweights such as Misþyrming en Svartidauði.
During this event in the land of ice and fire we witnessed some amazing shows, spoke to Lockhart himself and members of Misþyrming about the burgeoning black metal-scene in Iceland. We also asked what is going to happen after the demise of Oration festival: “Black metal sort of makes sense in Iceland where you inexplicably want to rebel. This place basically sucks: this is an island in the middle of fucking nowhere. In order to go somewhere you need to step out of the box. In order to get noticed, you need to go extreme, such as with a divergent music genre as black metal. It is established to break boundaries, break rules and to go against the grain.”
By Daan Holthuis, photography Serpents Lens Photography
After a flight over an untroubled black-and-white landscape of powdery peaks, icy glaciers and vast tundras we land in Reykjavik. The air is clear and the afternoon sun feels pleasant. From afar we see the iconic Hallgrímskirkja tower over the city. When we arrive on the spot where the Solfár gazes over the bay, a cold wind shows the actual subarctic climate we are in. On the other side of the bay Mount Esja’s snowy peaks loom. It is quite busy in the city as more and more tourists have made way to the northernmost capital in the last couple of years. To flee from the bitter cold we run to Húrra, the stage of the first two Oration nights. The small and intimate bar is located in a little bystreet in the city centre and can host some 200-300 visitors. A crowd of like-minded people, all dressed in black of course, have already gathered in front of the entrance. We overhear several people meeting up again after Netherlands Deathfest, the death metal festival in Tilburg that took place the weekend before. Between the chatter, we preoccupy ourselves with thinking about how it became possible for a black metal scene to originate in this place. In a city with only 200.000 citizens, which is only two-thirds of the country’s population.
In conversation with Misþyrming’s D.G. and Helgi it appears that black metal is not so much of a novelty in Iceland, but the recent attention on the current scene is. “I think there have been two black metal scenes in the past in Iceland, but those are dead now. This current scene started with Svartidauði’s ‘Flesh Cathedral’ (Terratur Possessions 2012, recorded in Lockhart’s Studio Emissary, ed.). They were the first ones, the pioneers. For me personally, to see Svartidauði making a vinyl release happen had such an impact. You have to realise that there is no vinyl manufacturer in Iceland. We are so far away from everything that releasing a vinyl is a big thing for an Icelandic band. When we saw Sinmara do the same a half year later, we were like: this is possible for us as well. It is the same with the cassette label (Vánagandr, ed.) that I run with Tómas. (Isdal, guitarist in Naðra and Misþyrming among others, and called the ‘backbone of Icelandic black metal’ by The Reykjavik Grapevine, ed.). All of a sudden there was this platform that they could use and that was gaining more and more of an international reputation. It functioned as an impetus for other bands to record stuff. In the end it is simple: you just go to a show, get inspired to do similar things and use it in your creation. Everything has developed as a snowball-effect which gave the scene its momentum.”
Stafur til að vekja upp draug
Personally welcomed by Lockhart, we enter a dimly lighted space filled with incense and candles. In front of the stage a modest altar is prepared, consisting of skulls, chalices and a book of runes, such as ‘Stafur til að vekja upp draug’ – the magic rune to invoke spirits and raise the dead. All is set up for NYIÞ’s remarkable ritual that opens Oration. Hybrid drones of string instruments, guitar feedback and percussion are the foundation of this compelling performance. After the frontman has collapsed and is resurrected again, a heartbeat is the only sound that remains when the collective vacates the stage, leaving the audience awestruck.
The contrast with the following act Naðra could not be bigger. Black-stained bodies deliver a furious, but catchy version of Icelandic black metal, with every now and then a nice “UGH” à la Tom G. Warrior. Every song gets a ritualistic introduction, during which splashes of blood fly around. Auðn, the self-proclaimed outsiders of the already-outsider Icelandic black metal community are a personal highlight of this evening. The all-dressed-in-black band distinguish themselves with a dynamic and melodic sound, contrasting with the predominantly chaotic and oppressive Icelandic sound. Recently the band toured Europe with Gaahl’s Wyrd to promote their new album ‘Farvegir Fyrndar’ (Season of Mist 2017) and that experience results in an engaging live show.
As we see Lockhart running past a couple of times to put out little fires, the partly Dutch band Asagraum takes the stage. The act consists of frontwoman Obscura and the recently joined drummer A. among others. The well-received debut album ‘Potestas Magicum Diaboli’ (KVLT 2017) is filled with skilfully executed old school black metal and tonight it is performed superbly, including some powerful grim faces. Local phenomenon Sinmara, sharing members with Svartidauði, Slidhr en Almyrkvi plays next. The hooded singer and his black-smeared companions produce some pitch-black and dissonant black metal. With the band’s furious performance the evening reaches its boiling point. The first evening is concluded by the French act Aluk Todolo. Even though they call their music occult rock, it sounds more like a combination of experimental French-style black metal and krautrock. It is not a surprise that the band releases her music through the progressive French label Norma Evangelium Diaboli. Their unconventional music is not to everybody’s taste and early on several visitors are homeward bound. The people that are left are brought into a state of trance, which will remain into the small hours.
Deathspell Omega on Xanax
On the second day we run into Stephen again. More relaxed and happy how several things have worked out so far, he updates us about the preparations for tomorrow in Listasafn, the modern art museum across the street where the last day of the festival will take place. Nevertheless, he quickly rushes off to send the first act on stage. Today no ritualistic opening to start with, but we are immediately blown away by Mannveira. The blackened group is deeply rooted in Norwegian old school black metal, but with an oppressive Icelandic twist of course. The drummer batters the kit like a young Fenriz, whilst singer Illugi growls and screams as if his soul is about to leave his human form. Finland’s Devouring Star wields a contrasting sound made of technical black metal that reminds of Deathspell Omega and former-Deamon Worship label buddies Svartidauði. Complicated chords and rattling blast beats fly around and a theatrical singer fronts the stage. Comparable to the previous act, Abominor’s intricate wall of sound is made of complex, tremolo-picked chords. The Icelanders enthral the audience with their lengthy compositions and voices from the abyss, despite some technical issues halfway through the set.
Subsequently it is time for British black metal exponent Abyssal. The band impresses with a tight blackened death metal sound with gloomy melodies weaved through. Dressed in a black garment, the frontman mesmerizes the audience like Mayhem’s Attila Csihar. The guitarists shred their instruments to pieces and the hyper fast gravity blasts are astonishing. Absolutely a highlight of this evening! Next up is Slidhr, including Lockhart himself. Fronted by the Irish singer and guitarist Joseph Deegan they present misanthropic black metal. However, it is the following Canadian duo Sortilegia that is really impressive. Set in a totally dimmed room with only one spot enlightening the stage, incense is filling the space again. Frontwoman Koldovstvo and drummer Haereticus produce a hypnotic, minimalistic sound. Her possessed and chilling howls give us the chills down our spines.
The surreal sounding Virus from Norway, later strikingly described by Misþyrming’s D.G as “Deathspell Omega on Xanax”, rounds off the second evening. Spoken word is combined with jazzy rock and a solemn performance. Again, the trio is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the remaining audience members look like being enchanted. It is a characterizing booking by Oration that challenges the audience to broaden their musical scope.
The grand finale takes place in the central hall of Iceland’s largest museum, the Listasafn Reykjavíkur Hafnarhús. Located in the old harbour the warehouse hosts a variety of events that range from poetry evenings to black metal concerts. The hall replaced the Gamla Bíó, the venue that Oration was aiming for at the time of the announcement. Due to Gamla Bíó’s legal disputes the festival went back to the cosy Húrra and opted for Listasafn for the last day. The first attendees behold Sinmara’s Garðar S. Jónsson solo project Almyrkvi set on a candlelit stage. Again a personal favourite of mine. The music is monumental, atmospheric and spacey. Despite some technical issues in the beginning of their performance, they manage to take us into their desolate, vantablack universe. Next up the Czech cult band Inferno moves themselves into the limelight. Since 1996 they have released dozens of splits in just as much different line-ups. Last year they released their seventh studio album, ‘Gnosis Kardias’ (W.T.C./ Blut & Eisen Prod. 2017). Thanks to the shuddering performance by frontman Adramelech the quintet delivers a fine show.
With Roadburn’s former Artist In Residence Misþyrming, it is time for a notorious local act which a lot of people have been waiting for. Directly at the first notes the passion and enthusiasm bursts. The triumphant songs of ‘Söngvar elds og óreiðu’ (Terratur Possessions 2015) are performed so furiously that we are all shivering. D.G. and co rule over Oration tonight! Whereas Misþyrming yields some groove and melody in their sound, Svartidauði rages with a chaotic and discordant formula. With their oppressive sound and finespun melodies they are the prime example of Icelandic black metal. Frontman Sturla Viðar’s broken bass string is exemplary for the violence the quartet catapults their music into the hall. When the dust settles, Vemod begins. Lockhart himself made sure they would come to Iceland to showcase some new Norwegian black metal talent. There is a big difference in vibe with the Icelandic forces, but it is a pleasant one. Promptly, dreamy, post punk inspired black metal sounds fill the cold hall during their set. Ultimately, Lockhart’s Rebirth of Nefast concludes Oration’s last edition, four figures hidden in majestic robes surrounded by candlelight in the dark warehouse. During their ritualistic performance, they spawn grim melodies that pierce through epic layers of reverb and distortion. It is a more than a suiting end for this intriguing festival.
After three editions of showcasing the Icelandic black metal scene and inviting personal favourites, Oration sadly comes to an end. Finally we can ask Lockhart the big question that everybody wants an answer to and that was not answered in our previous article: why is Oration put to an end? “It is a combination of both artistic and practical reasons. I don’t consider myself a concert promoter and as of now, I don’t want this to become my job. Professionally, I am a musician and producer first. The original concept behind the festival was for it to be a showcase for bands I’d be producing at Studio Emissary. Though it’s just two years since the first edition of Oration, that concept transformed into something far greater, now with approximately three-quarters of the attendees coming from abroad. My responsibility to my family (Lockhart became a father for a second time recently, ed.), my own music and my work as a producer must come first. Second, the last evening in Listasafn main hall is a wonderful highlight. Of course we could probably continue the festival and grow, but eventually all will decline and it will bleed to death. At a certain point it is not special anymore and those international visitors will not attend anymore. I want to quit while the integrity and relevance of the festival is without question. Nevertheless, I assume something else will replace it, such as Reykjavik Deathfest for example.”
Later on we meet up with Misþyrming’s D.G. and Helgi to talk about the new initiatives in the music scene on Iceland. “We have had talks about whether to continue something, not to continue Oration, but to continue something happening in Iceland annually or whatever. Everything is very much alive right know and everybody we know in this scene is still full of inspiration and creating music.” Take for example Tómið Hungrar, a local promoter that recently collaborated with D.G.’s Vánagandr to invite the Black Twilight Circle collective (“the American answer to Les Légions Noires, the mysterious French black metal collective”, according to Noisey, ed.) from Los Angeles in January. “Yeah, that was like a test. We didn’t do anything like that before and it worked out really well. We have been talking about whether we should start a new festival or something and get bands from abroad. We know plenty of cool bands. But we face the same problems that Stephen is facing. We are just so fucking busy with other things, personal lives, and the bands. Anyway, things are brewing and that Tómið Hungrar promoter is doing his thing. He is planning a couple of shows by foreign bands. If that starts rolling, we could do it.”
Also, we should not forget to mention that the Eistnaflug Festival will take place on the 11th-14th of July. A metal festival set at Iceland’s east coast, past the Dimmuborgir-rock formations and where the sun never sets, in the quaint hamlet of Neskaupstaður.
Post Scriptum: Sól Án Varma
We talk with both gentlemen about their upcoming performance at Roadburn as well. “We are working our asses off to make that shit happen. It is not ready, but it is getting there. That is pretty much what we will spend our time on until Roadburn. We will perform it only once and not like the three times we did with the Úlfsmessa. I got sick of it. People were mistaking us for a supergroup or something or a brand. The focus shifted from the bands to the brand. People were like (…) ‘Yes, the Úlfsmessa, that shit sells ‘It’s good for business if I book a Úlfsmessa for my festival’ and asking ‘Hi man, could you do an Úlfsmessa at my festival, that would be super cool’ (…). Even labels were contacting us if they could sign the Úlfsmessa. It started to feel like a gimmick. It was a name for the collaborating bands performing this ritualistic showcase. The people that showed up for the first Úlfsmessa showed up for the bands that were collaborating. That kind of got lost. With Sól Án Varma it would be healthy to expect nothing. If you don’t expect anything you’re not going to get disappointed, I guess. Not saying that it is not good. But if you expect it to be something, you already have made up your mind about it. It is not that kind of performance. You should approach it with an open mind. You have to be there and take it in and then the moment’s gone. Carpe diem.”
Under the name of Vánagandr members of Misþyrming, Naðra, Svartidauði, and Wormlust will perform the specially commissioned Sól án varma performance at Roadburn on Sunday, April 22. Reykjavik Deathfest will be held at Gaukurinn on the 17th-19th of May 2018, featuring performances of Ulsect and Dodecahedron among others. Eistnaflug will be held in Neskaupstaður on the 11th-14th of July, with acts such as Watain, Batushka, Sólstafir and Auðn.