Scene Report – Icelandic Black Metal

By on 31 March 2016


There’s something evil brewing over in Iceland’s remote black metal scene, and with key members of some of their prominent bands bringing their Úlfsmessa performance to Roadburn in just under a fortnight, it doesn’t look like the country will be able to keep them to itself much longer. Terrorizer’s José Carlos Santos investigates…

One of the most used concepts when talking about music, particularly within our own universe of extreme music – take that as an “everything Terrorizer-able” umbrella term – is the notion of “scene”. It means different things in different contexts, from the most inclusive (“the metal scene”, i.e., all of us, in a way) to the most specific, and it’s such a used term in our musical world because of the idea of community that has always been central to heavy metal since its very inception, and has always been the common denominator in its many, often opposing, varieties which have unfolded through the decades. No matter how popular some bands might become, we’re all outsiders in musical terms; rebellion and non-conformism is at the very core of what it means to listen to any form of extreme music, and therefore our unity and support of each other means so much more to us than in other kinds of music. And then, there is the importance of the local scenes to the development of particular genres – one of the most glaring examples being the emergence of the Norwegian black metal scene in the late ’80s/early ’90s which forever changed the landscape of extreme music. In this century, with globalisation apparently (we do stress “apparently”) turning many of the local scenes’ effects and benefits obsolete, it’s been hard to pinpoint special pockets of activity around the globe, so it’s refreshing to see something bubbling profusely, with malicious glee, way up there in the North Atlantic.

Iceland wouldn’t be the most likely guess if you had to predict the origin of the next meaningful underground scene, as a small, remote and sparsely populated country, without many traditions in extreme music (despite a few incredibly important exceptions, of course), but nevertheless it displays these days a true hotbed of black metal activity, one that is starting to make huge waves in the rest of the world. It is such an exciting scene because, first and foremost, the bands that are coming out of it exhibit a staggering level of quality and unique personality, which should always be the first criteria for anything. But it is also exhilarating to see that it is a “true” scene – though centred mostly around Misþyrming and the Vánagandr tape label, it is a tight-knit community working together, sharing band members, collaborating on shows and releases and supporting each other. The most palpable outcome of this collaboration is naturally the gloriously epic Úlfsmessa, a staggeringly intense performance including the aforementioned Misþyrming and also Naðra, NYIÞ and Grafir that has taken place two times already at Eistnaflug Festival, and will now for the first time occur outside of Iceland during the next Roadburn Festival, where Misþyrming will be artists in residence. We talked to two of the central figures of this scene, Tómas Ísdal, aka T.I., who plays guitars in Misþyrming, Carpe Noctem, Nornahetta, Grafir and Naðra as well as drums in 0, and Dagur, aka D.G., bassist for Misþyrming (where he is also vocalist and guitarist), Naðra, Skáphe and Martröð, and guitarist/vocalist in the creepily elusive 0. Busy kids with a lot of talent to spread out, as you can see.

“I got interested in black metal as a teenager reading about the ’90s scene in Norway,” D.G. starts, bridging the two scenes we’ve talked about perfectly. “‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ fascinated me, though, I didn’t get seriously into black metal until I heard Deathspell Omega. Everything was perfect about that band. It really appealed to me. Cliché?” he asks with a smirk, and who cares, really. “Around that time I used to play with a death metal band that was formed through an Icelandic forum. Through that band and school I met many of the guys that I’ve since then played with in various projects.”

One of them being, obviously, his bandmate T.I..

“I was around thirteen when I first got into black metal,” T.I. offers. “Very few people I knew appreciated metal, so I was stuck with whatever I could hear on the radio or learn about from those few friends. Mostly classic stuff, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and the likes. One of them eventually pointed me towards Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death, which got me into the more extreme music. After borrowing CDs and asking my guitar teacher (among others) for recommendations I eventually ended up with a copy of Darkthrone’s ‘Under A Funeral Moon’. There is something very primal about that record. Its essence shines through every second. Black metal carries a very distinct and unique atmosphere. Its dreamlike mystique is probably what has kept me obsessed with it all those years.”

So far, so just-like-you-and-me, right? So, when was the click that led to these lads exploding all their talent into a fully-functioning label and scene?

“From my point of view, this current scene in Iceland started to roll around the time when Svartidauði’s ‘Flesh Cathedral’ was released on Terratur Possessions in the end of 2012,” D.G. reasons very specifically. “There was not much going on before that album was released. Svartidauði, Carpe Noctem and Chao (now Sinmara) were the only bands I remember being active doing live shows. Sinmara released their debut album a little more than half a year after Svartidauði, also on Terratur Possessions. Carpe Noctem’s debut was released then too. That was the time when I was starting to work on the Misþyrming material. I was also active with 0 and Naðra, and Mannveira were beginning to record their demos. T.I. and I realized that there was something happening within the scene so the idea of Vánagandr was born. So, the scene was definitely growing before ‘us’ but from my perspective it all really blew up around both the bands that were getting released by Terratur Possessions, and the formation of Vánagandr.”

T.I. also shares some info that explains the growth not only of Icelandic black metal, but Icelandic extreme and alternative music in the past few years: “I first started going to local gigs about ten years ago. The scene felt lively and active with plenty of good sounding acts. Hardcore, noise and death metal bands would frequently do gigs together and help each other out,” he mentions, crucially. “There was a good atmosphere and a friendly vibe. The scene was also younger back then – I was only fifteen at the time – which made for a lot more headbanging and moshing. The scene still retains most of these things but I feel like it evolved into more isolated pockets over time. We just wanted to create music with like-minded people and the ones closest to us were the ones we had already been playing with for a while. People here don’t really pay attention to ‘scene politics’, but we don’t really pay attention to the ‘scene’ either. Everybody’s doing their own thing, but most of them are happy to help out or collaborate in some way if you ask them.”

Let us turn to the Vánagandr label then, as it seems to be a decisive epicentre to all this activity. To keep up the comparison, it’s kind of like what Helvete was back in the day for the Norwegians, without the physical get-together spot element, but still.

“Vánagandr is still a very young entity,” T.I. says, first of all. “Our first release came out just over a year ago. I wouldn’t call it the ‘basis’ of the whole collective but more a result of the collective. Dagur and I had discussed the idea of forming a label for our bands a few times before actually putting it into action. The trigger was when we had around three releases ready but had not even begun thinking of finding someone to release them. Why not just do it ourselves and see if people will buy it? First we spent a lot of time dubbing Naðra demos but moved on to pro tapes when we released the Mannveira tape. We’re still doing relatively small runs of tapes and repressing them when they sell out. I get the Helvete comparisons, but this isn’t the first time something like that has been done and we’re not planning any arson in the foreseeable future,” he adds with a smirk. “We simply aim to release good Icelandic black metal. We didn’t start the label overnight and we’re still moving slowly, hoping to avoid beginners mistakes. Phrases like ‘the future of black metal’ get thrown around so much these days that they’re practically meaningless. We’re not trying to be more than we are. I like to think our music is honest.” D.G. picks up the thread: “I do see why people suggest that we are currently Icelandic black metal’s Helvete, and I agree,” he says. “Having a certain name, as a unity, makes the scene remarkable. Vánagandr is a name, a unity. Tómas and I formed Vánagandr because we saw the potential within the scene that was getting born. We had recorded 0’s ‘Null & Void’ and Naðra’s demo, as well as I was working with Mannveira on their first demo and recording Misþyrming’s debut. There is a certain foreign scene that influenced us. We knew we would be stupid not to give our idea a shot.”

Despite the rising level of popularity, and for all the comparisons not only with Norway but with other important scenes as well, one thing is fundamentally different – though we are talking to two of the main characters right now, none of the people involved seem to stand out in the way to give rise to a personality cult. Saying there isn’t a Euronymous or a Fenriz in this bunch is not to take anything away from these amazing artists – in fact, it’s quite a compliment. These bands still hold an aura of foggy mystery around them, something we often feel has been lost forever in extreme music, and we can only commend them for that effort.

“Being mysterious gives the audience’s imagination a freedom to play around,” D.G. says thoughtfully. “It is like reading a book, what happens in your mind is what’s important. It’s also important to let the music speak for itself, rather than letting a phenomenon that you’ve summed up in your head represent the music. You shouldn’t expect something more than it is.” T.I. adds that “The masks you saw during the Úlfsmessa were exclusively used by NYIÞ until then. For NYIÞ it was to keep their identities hidden, but also to dehumanise them, as the music is channelled from a primal, inhuman perspective. Music tends to lose its personal value once connected to people or ideologies. It should be valued on its own merits. For similar reasons we tend to just refer to ourselves by initials. The people behind the music aren’t important. The music itself is.”

This is wisdom far beyond their years, be it the two musicians themselves or the actual age and maturity expected of bands formed but a few years ago by then-teenagers. That’s just one more reason for you to both fear and be in awe of the upcoming Tilburg Úlfsmessa, which promises to make grown men weep tears of fear and intimidation down their beards when Roadburn rolls around.

“The Úlfsmessa is a simple ritual, but I would prefer to leave the actual mechanics out of the conversation,” T.I. says, wisely, once again, protecting the intimacy of the bands and the way they function. “A mass is not only a rite for the performer but also for the congregation. The music is used to amplify its effects. It is the most important catalyst. The idea of making it a live performance came about during various rehearsals and discussions leading up to Eistnaflug 2014. The shared line-up of the bands made it relatively easy to rotate between instruments and songs. We were curating an off-venue part of the festival at an abandoned steel factory and decided to perform a collaborative set as a finale. It got a bit chaotic. We ended up smashing up every single window in the building during the performance. It was to let all the smoke out of the room and the sunlight in. An appropriate end to the temple of madness we had fallen in love with over the years. I think the building has been demolished by now, which is why the program was in Egilsbúð (the venue which used to host Eistnaflug) this time. As we were piecing together the line-up for next year we came to speak of the Úlfsmessa again. Somewhat hesitantly, we ended up making arrangements for another ceremony. This time we the organisation was more precise. We wanted to emphasise the dark and mysterious. This is why we masked the whole collective. We also liked the confusion they brought. I’m not sure if anyone really knew which band was playing at any given time. So while the first Úlfsmessa was centred around fiery destruction, the second one was about the dark and mysterious. The void left behind. The third one is a result of those two. The twilight state before creation.”

That it will happen outside of Iceland seems to make little difference.

“Being the artist in residence is a big responsibility and honour,” D.G. says respectfully. “We will do three different shows, each representing a different side of Misþyrming. I’m not worried about any of this since we’re doing our thing, which we’re already familiar with. We put all of ourselves into the Úlfsmessas before and we will do so again. It will be a lot of work, and the thought of it is good.”

T.I. reveals that “I’ve wanted to go to Roadburn since I was a teenager and we’ll be sharing the stage with some of my favourite bands so we feel like we need to do something special. And I can confidently say that all the performances will be special. Most, if not all of the bands will also be unveiling new releases there.”

When asked about the future of the scene, the label and the bands, both of them shrug as if they’ve never thought of that. Carpe Noctem, but also carpe diem, right?

“I have no idea how the future will be for Vánagandr and its related projects. We take these things one step at a time. Though I must say the future looks bright at the moment,” T.I. says nonchalantly. “We will continue doing what we’re doing as long as we respect our work and enjoy it,” D.G. finishes. “Going above the underground doesn’t bother me at all. Being true kvlt is not of a big importance to us. We’re not doing what we’re doing to conform to the worldwide black metal scene. Roadburn requested us to play as Artist in Residence on the terms that we deserve to be presented in such an honourable way. Getting recognized for our hard work is a positive, rewarding thing. I want to keep evolving as a musician and expanding the label. Time will tell how this all will go.”

We have a feeling it will go very, very well.

Words: José Carlos Santos

Misþyrming are due to perform at Roadburn on April 14th, whilst the Úlfsmessa will take place on April 15th

You can find Roadburn on Facebook

About Kez Whelan

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

%d bloggers like this: