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Enter the Wolf's Lair: Icelandic Black Metal Asserted Its Dominance at Eistnaflug 2015

Noisey's Kim Kelly traveled to the land of fire and ice to Iceland's Eistnaflug festival to see Carcass, Behemoth, and a slew of killer Icelandic black metal bands.

by Kim Kelly
16 July 2015, 5:01pm

All photos by Grace Hollaender

This year, alongside the requisite punks, stoner rockers, progressive types, death metallers, and nostalgia acts, a good dozen black metal (or at least, theatrical extreme metal) bands played Eistnaflug, Iceland's biggest metal festival. Their presence was felt just as much offstage as on, thanks to the festival's close quarters and the Icelandic summer's nonstop daylight. One of the defining features of yesterday's Eistnaflug photo essay—besides the sweeping fjords and pearly grins—was all the corpsepaint smeared across all those smiling visages. The festival was positively awash in black paint. The snarling wraiths onstage—and their post-performance faces tinged grey with exhaustion and leftover eyeliner—joined happy-go-lucky concertgoers who'd showed up streaked with festively grim designs, making for a bizarre tableau that became unremarkable by weekend's end, as much a part of the scenery as the mountains or the fog.

The overall lineup promised a wide array of interesting, inspiring performances, but I'd be lying if I said my true focus wasn't on its black metal offerings (and of course, on Carcass, because Carcass). Last year, I discovered the bleak brilliance of Misþyrming, Carpe Noctem, Naðra, and NYIÞ, so this time around, I was interested to see what else I'd been missing. Eistnaflug 2015 provided me with a fresh list of bands to obsess over: Mannveira, Abominor, Auðn, and Skuggsjá, as well as the shadowy collective behind Saturday's otherworldly Úlfsmessa II.

Continued below.

The Úlfsmessa—"Wolf's Mass"—first appeared at Eistnaflug last year, holding court within the charred walls of a dilapidated warehouse by the sea. This year, the collaborative ritual took place indoors, on a stage at secondary venue Egilsbúð littered with bones. The concept remained the same—members of three bands (Misþyrming, Naðra, Grafir, and NYIÞ), all shrouded in black with executioners' hoods pulled tightly around their heads and streaks of paint scarring their skin, convened in a mesmerizing performance that ebbed and flowed for over ninety minutes (skip to 3:16 for a taste).

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It began and ended with a ritual—a ringing of bells, a sip of red wine drunk from a communal goblet passed along the front row, crushed bones, flickering candles, a hooded woman in black gliding soundlessly through the crowd. NYIÞ's opening rite, with sonorous trumpet and mournful accordions wheezing a surreal funeral dirge, gave way to Grafir's eerie chants and post-punk drums. NYIÞ reappeared for a uncharacteristic metallic blast before Naðra exploded onstage, helmed by a violent, staff-wielding terror with a bottomless howl. His manic antics nearly dissolved the front row into a brawl before the members of Misþyrming appeared and the two merged, closing things out with characteristic feral intensity and NYIÞ's harrowing closing ritual.

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Watching the Úlfsmessa was a truly visceral experience—I could taste the wine, smell the burning wax, feel the stage shuddering beneath my hands and the distortion rattling my bones and the hairs standing up on the back of my neck whenever one of the hooded figures drew closer. It was frightening in its beauty, and beautiful in its harsh ugliness. What they created up there was raw, and intense, and chilled us to the bone. It reminded me why I love black metal so fiercely, and gave me hope for the future of a genre so often allowed to fester.

Black metal musings aside, the rest of the bill had plenty to offer. 2015 marked Eistnaflug's biggest year yet, and the organizers definitely decided to go hard on its eleventh anniversary. Carcass, Behemoth, Enslaved, Rotting Christ, Kvelertak, Conan, Inquisition, Vallenfyre, Lucifyre, Vampire (to say nothing of Icelandic success stories Sólstafir, Muck, The Vintage Caravan, and beloved acquired tastes Skálmöld and HAM) would make for a killer lineup at any fest, let alone one nestled in a little village in the shadow of the Eastern Icelandic fjords.

Wednesday night featured an abbreviated bill stocked with special performances, most notably DYS' anarchic crust and Sólstafir's Goblin-style live score to the 1984 saga movie Hrafninn Flýgur (When the Raven Flies), which turned out to be utterly engrossing in its epic mid-80s gore glory. A florid tribute to Trúbrot's revered 1971 prog rock odyssey Lifun made its mark as well (especially on main organizer Stebbi, whose face was lit up like a kid's on Christmas morning).

The fest was in full swing by Thursday afternoon, kicking off the day's program with Auðn. Instead of channeling the chaos that so inspires their peers' compositions, Auðn's take on black metal is decidedly atmospheric, rife with melodic leads, but with plenty of bite —think more Windir than Wolves in the Throne Room. Live, the sound is obviously quite a bit more raw, but those epic tendencies bleed through. Mannveira, on the other hand, sound as barbaric and rough on their recordings as they did in the belly of the smokey basement that constituted the "off-off venue" and onstage at Egilsbúð on Saturday. As part of the tightly-knit scene that surrounds the Vánagandr tape label, Mannveira fits neatly alongside the likes of Misþyrming and Naðra, and with any luck will be the next great black metal band to break out of Reykjavik.

True to form, Conan hit the stage like an atom bomb; as I walked up to the venue, I could feel the walls shaking. The UK doom troupe continues to impress in a live setting, blowing out speakers (and eardrums) with measured grace. There's heavy... and then there's Conan. In comparison, Rotting Christ struggled to captivate, falling back on theatrical flourishes and a Wacken-ready stage show to disguise the lackluster quality of their recent material (though the old stuff still rips when they get going). Carcass ruled, as usual, with Jeff Walker in unusually high spirits and a bell-bottomed Bill Steer holding grind court above the crush of bodies churning below; the crowd simmered with anticipation beforehand, and positively exploded into the most cheerful moshpit I've ever seen once the British legends strolled onstage.

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It doesn't get much better than screaming along to "Keep on Rotting in the Free World" with a thousand-odd Icelanders who are all going batshit crazy. Sólstafir brought things back down to a slow boil; after their recent, publicly acrimonious split with a now-former drummer, the vibe in the venue felt a little off before they came onstage, but they soldiered on, proving once again why these self-professed anti-Christian Icelandic heathen bastards so beloved at home and abroad.

Friday started early with Misþyrming—who I still think is one of the best black metal bands on the planet—owning the main stage, stalking across its vast expanse like practiced assassins instead of the greenhorns they still are. Their murky, complex bastardization of black metal—studded with death and ambient touches—has won them considerable acclaim already, but the band's real power lies in its live performance, especially now that the formerly one-man project has expanded into a fully-functioning quartet.

Grit Teeth's muscular hardcore—think Nails, with a dash of early Entombed—took me by surprise, but ended as one of the fest's highlights. The Úlfsmessa II formed the centerpiece of the day, though; by the time it was over and the smoke had cleared, I was far too drained to care much about anything else. Luckily for the rest of the bands, not everyone felt that way, and Enslaved's main stage set prompted a rapturous response. Having honed their already formidable live skills on a recent US tour with Yob, the Norwegian institutions sailed through an effortlessly grand set of proggy epics and a few frostbitten old tunes without seeming to break a sweat. Few bands deserve the "majestic" tag more than Enslaved.

As for the headliners, I've long tried to understand the appeal of hugely popular, hugely goofy Viking-ish rockers Skálmöld to no avail. They're huge—the hall was packed to the gills during their set, and I saw more people wearing Skálmöld T-shirts and hoodies than any other kind of band merch—but I saw a few other foreigners looking askance at the stage as well, so I guess it's just an Icelandic thing.

Saturday was the final day of the festival, and death was all around us. An unstoppable three-band streak began with Severed, a prime example of the tragedy of remoteness; were it not for the prohibitively exorbitant cost of leaving the island to tour, they'd probably be huge. As it stood, elastic vocalist Ingólfur Ólafsson (who's in basically every active death metal band in Iceland) hurtled across the stage in a big blond ball of mad energy, backed by reams of technical, highly satisfying death metal bombast. The stage swallowed up Lucifyre, though, who looked as though they'd rather be hammering through their chaotic black/death odes in a candlelit cave somewhere. Vampire fared a bit better, shimmying determinedly through a short set of gothy Swedish death.

AMFJ's menacing paroxysms of harsh noise left Egilsbúð shell-shocked, igniting my intensity hangover from Úlfsmessa II before Muck swaggered onstage. Every person I encountered beforehand told me that I absolutely had to watch Muck, and I could see why within a split second of their set starting. A weirdly appealing mix of Bleach-era Nirvana squalls, hardcore aggression, and a sloppy garage rock vibe congealed into one of the best damn rock shows I've ever seen. Afterwards, Abominor's brooding black metal overtures hit the spot, adding a nice patina of grime to the evening before Behemoth's lights flashed on.

By now, Behemoth a well-oiled machine; each moment is planned and orchestrated for maximum impact, and the result is dazzling every time, whether you'd seeing them for the first time or the fifteenth. After their death-heavy middle years, the band sounds blacker than ever, cycling through the angular new material as well as savage classics like "Christians to the Lions" and "Slaves Shall Serve" with imperial grace.

This was a difficult review to write, simply because I had so few complaints, and had such a wonderful overall experience. I'd urge any fan of extreme—or not so extreme—metal to make the trek over, at least once, to experience the vibe and breathtaking scenery surrounding this Roadburn of the North. Sometimes it takes crossing an ocean and embedding yourself into an almost entirely alien situation in order to reinvigorate your love for something, whether it be your favorite music genre, your record collection, or (after four days of drinking, moshing, and raging) your couch.

Now that I'm home and mostly recovered, missing black metal supergroup Sinmara and progressive dreamboats Momentum are my most bitter Eistnaflug regrets. In a stroke of luck (and careful planning), New York-area heshers will be able to catch Sinmara (as well as their countrymen in Slidhr, and Norway's incredible One Tail One Head) in the flesh at this month's Dissociative Visions festival at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus Bar.

And as for Eistnaflug? Next year's headliners have already been announced. See you there!

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.