Judging a battle of the bands is a task not to be taken lightly, whether it's taking place at a high school talent show or out among the Icelandic fjords. Getting a chance to do the latter—in which the winner will bag a slot at the biggest heavy metal festival in the world, Wacken Open Air—is the holy grail of honors bestowed upon those fortunate enough to occasionally string synonyms together to describe rock 'n' roll. Our ebullient host for this past year's Icelandic edition of the Wacken Metal Battle, Thorsteinn Kolbeinsson, invited journalists from Noisey, Metal Hammer and Metal Italia to Reykjavik to cast their critical and inflated opinions on six bands of reasonable merit. Before the main event, he was kind enough to take to them to see breathtaking waterfalls, elven settlements and let them loose on an isolated cabin in the mountains with a hot tub and copious bottles of questionable Icelandic grog.
Suitably refreshed for the job at hand, the judging itself was made easy the moment Auðn took the stage. Wedged between some technically-proficient-but-soulless prog-noodling and plodding-but-uninspiring black-death, Auðn offered a fresh take on black metal that pays respect to its forebears while threatening to step into realms of brilliance that could see them join the current flock of Icelandic innovators, Svartidauði, Sinmara and Misþyrming. They weren't quite there yet, but the gathered hacks were impressed.
Crowned the clear winners, Hjálmar Gylfason (bass), Sigurður Pálsson (drums), Hjalti Sveinsson (vocals) and guitarists Andri Birgisson and Aðalsteinn Magnússon set off to preparing for Wacken, in which they placed third, beaten by a band called Zombies Ate My Girlfriend (“How can we compete with that?”). The months that followed would see the band invited to Inferno Festival in Norway, Iceland's own Airwaves Festival, Roskilde in Denmark, Devilstone in Lithuania, and Roadburn in The Netherlands, where they would finally get the seal of approval from Season Of Mist, culminating in the November 10 release of their second album, Farvegir Fyrndar (which is streaming below, and is available for preorder here).
It's been a wild ride for a bunch of Icelandic young bloods. How do they feel?
“After winning the battle? Pretty good.”
Aði, Andri and Hjalti are playing video games at Gaukurinn, a Reykjavik dive bar, when I catch up with them 18 months after judgement night. Dragging them away from MarioCart and an Alice In Chains tribute band, I sought to find out how that fateful evening pushed them into becoming one of the most hotly-tipped names in contemporary black metal.
“It was a pretty weird thing, going into the battle, it felt like we'd already won. We decided we were going to win,” says Hjalti. He's the serious one in the trio, all furrowed brow and thoughtful answers. In complete opposition, Aði is the cheeky joker of the pack. Andri is the composer, lyricist, and geek of the band, the one who'll happily talk you through Iceland's history with sheep husbandry and Deathspell Omega's Fas – Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeternum with equal passion.
“It worked out,” says Aði with a chuckle. “We hung out backstage a lot, talking to press, talking to bookers. It was like being at work, but while being really drunk. 2016 was pretty crazy. But we're not done yet.”
From their first festival booking at Iceland's Eistnaflug Festival to Roadburn, Auðn—pronounced "urn," aptly enough, and meaning "desolation"—have global domination at the top of their to-do list, but not at the expense of forgetting their roots. Would they ever move away from Iceland? “No way,” is the resounding answer.
“Honestly, we've been very lucky, thanks to Eistnaflug and many people here in Iceland,” says Hjalti. “Eistnaflug was starting to change from a very small family party of metalheads in Iceland to foreign journalists and representatives from labels coming there, around the same time we were starting to get better. We were terrible a few years ago, so I think it was timing. We were lucky to play in front of the right people at the right time.”
Terrible? “Don't look for the pictures, please!”
The band, who were all born between Bathory's 1984 debut and Mayhem's 1994 classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, started life as a death metal band called Hubris, who technically still exist.
“We basically spent 2007 until 2010 locked in a basement,” says Hjalti. “We got tired of that, and Andri came along and very quickly afterwards Hjálmar. That was when we were finally anxious to go out and play. Those were very formative years, we were playing smaller bars here in Iceland.”
“Except it was the same 30 to 50 people,” Aði adds glumly.
The trio laugh, with Hjalti admitting, “That's actually very generous, there was almost never 50 people there.”
Andri has a slightly more romantic nostalgia when thinking back to those early fumblings on Iceland’s toilet circuit. “No one was counting,” he offers. “We were on stage and that is what mattered. We got to play and hashed out most of our songs.”
So when did the grinding, slamming deathcore of Hubris pave the way for the progressive, hypnotic, desolate chaos of Auðn?
“The problem with Hubris was that we wanted to be a brutal technical death metal band, but I never practiced,”admits Aði with a wide, Cheshire cat grin. “It was sloppy tech death. Then we decided 'let's just play black metal', it's easier.”
Andri glares at his guitarist partner from across the table. He's joking, I think. “When we wanted to create a solid concept, our bands got split into two," Hjalti clarifies. "Our serious effort became Auðn and when we wanted to have fun, there was Hubris, but I'm not really into black metal.”
Cue the mic drop moment. Farvegir Fyrndar is such a wholly reverent epitaph to the tenets of black metal—from progenitors Mayhem and Emperor to contemporary envelope-pushers Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, to whom they're often compared—that I smell a rat.
“I never finished a whole song by Deathspell Omega,” says Aði. “Please don't look at my YouTube feed because it's filled with shit music!”
So, if not second generation black metal, nor its sons and daughters of Northern darkness, who, or what, is Auðn's key influence?
“Most of the songs start with these two guys,” says Hjalti pointing at the two gentlemen to his left. “And so to me, what makes Auðn work is how the death metal background merges with a more melodic background that Andri has. Auðn is always a fight, it's where these different backgrounds come together. It's the sound of a constant struggle.”
“We're on the road to the end result; we're not there yet, by any stretch,” adds Aði. “But for me, influences are not bands, but more emotions.”
“It's almost the opposite for me,” says Andri. “I listen to a lot of bands, and I think that's why we work well together.”
What really underlines the sound of Auðn unravels when we learn that the band holed themselves up last winter to compose and record. You've not experienced winter until you've experienced an Icelandic winter, and that's what lies at the heart of Farvegir Fyrndar.
“A rough translation would be 'where rivers used to run,'” is the explanation from Aði, politely ignoring my attempts to pronounce the album title. “In context, you can relate it to time passing or events that took place in the past. Google Translate was weird, it said it was like 'colors of spring' or something like that, so don't use Google. At first glance, Iceland is beautiful and majestic, and then you live here and it's dark, and it's cold, and it's depressing and that really translates into the music. That's what Auðn's music and lyrics are all about.”
“Take away the electricity and the central heating and you'll fucking starve or freeze to death,”Hjalti chimes in grimly. “But the summers can be equally as difficult, because we get no dark at all, and I become delirious from lack of sleep. Black metal is the perfect soundtrack to the darkness and the snow. You drive every day to work, over the mountains and hills, where there is barren but beautiful nature and black metal just sounds better in that environment.”
Aði paints an even more evocative picture. “When everything is covered in snow the lights become different, especially when you have a full moon. It's not dark because the snow is so white and it reflects so much light, so you can see the hills. It's really beautiful. Especially when you have a still, cloudless, moonlit night.”
“Auðn and Iceland are intertwined, for me, personally, when writing the music and lyrics,” is Adnri, the main composer’s, take on his surroundings. “It's the beautiful front that hides the deeper meaning in the harshness and depression. If you would look at Iceland as a person, it would definitely be a manic depressive.”
So, does Auðn provide a much needed catharsis for the trio when the nights get longer and the temperature becomes unbearable? Is this why the band chose winter last year to focus on writing their second record? Hjalti thinks so.
“Absolutely. When the first snow hits we take a walk to the mountains, I know it sounds like a black metal cliché. I assure you, we dress for the occasion, not like your colleagues in the Gaahl video. I guess what we're trying to say is our opinion of being in Iceland is the same way as we described our music. It's difficult but it's also beautiful.”
“When you're sad you write better music,” adds Aði. I think you should write music instead of killing yourself.”
“I'm usually the most proactive when I'm really depressed,” Andri says. “It's a way to take your mind off things. Depression is a motivator.”
As Andri and Aði start singing Mayhem's "Freezing Moon" and banging their fists on the table, I can sense the interview is coming to a close. With the lyrics “Everything here is so cold, Everything here is so dark” ringing in our ears, Hjalti shakes his head.
“Well, I guess we are also influenced by second generation black metal after all.”
Louise Brown is staying ice cold on Twitter.