Each year at Easter, when the western and Christian world celebrates the rebirth of Jesus over the dates of an ancient fertility festival, in Norway’s capital the mandatory days off are used by the metal community to celebrate a darker get together: Inferno Metalfest. The festival and the connected Inferno Metal Conference celebrates Norway’s role and focus on Metal Music from its own stables as well as new things and greats from abroad.
On Thursday, after several fascinating panels at the official (also known as party) hotel Skandic with several boutique festival owners and publicists and writers for the international metal press about their crafts, we head to the Rockefeller/John Dee venue. The venue is of a comfortable size, at about 1300 capacity, and though crowdflow is a bit odd, the abundance of balconies means that usually, you can find a spot to see the bands you want. The john dee downstairs is a bit more cramped, but with the limit to go down, the venue itself never feels too crowded, excepting headliners.
As I managed to get in Odium are playing the mainstage. Odium go back to the almost gothic feeling early blackmetal had, and bring it into 2018, giving them a more sorrowful mournful sound. But with their theatrical deep sorrowful darkness they never loose the edge of aggression and pummel the anticipating crowd to a sad pulp.
The first band I managed to properly catch ended up being Erimha, a band that left the impression of me of being a hardcore/metalcore band who had decided they should try their hand at black metal, and not quite getting there. The vocals and stage presence were still very “core” like, while the guitar riffs were the high tempo tremolo we’d expect of blackmetal. There were moments the band really worked for me, just to be tossed off balance again a few seconds later. All in all, I wasn’t quite convinced and decided to wander off again and grab a bite to eat. This bite to eat turned out to be up three stairs on the charming rooftop area, which was also the only area for smokers and even has a small extra bar attached. Though it took a good while and some effort to find and get up there, the burgers are well worth the wait. Potentially a bit rare for some, the quality is much more like a gourmet food truck than festival food.
After that excellent bit of food, I descend to go catch Dodecahedron. Dodecahedron are by now a decently well-established name in the underground. Pushing the edges of blackmetal, these Dutchmen make very modern, almost mathematic blackmetal. After their original vocalist left, an imposing tree like giant, aptly named after an Oak, they had to look for a replacement and found an excellent one in W. van de Voort. His style isn’t like Eikenaar, but adds a welcome almost human element of desperation and sorrow to the otherwise cold, clinical and complex music, adding a human touch.
Next on the main stage, we get the notorious Swedish Shining, not to be confused with their Norwegian jazzy namesakes. I’d never seen this Shining live but had heard the general stories of Niklas’s crazy antics, including, but not limited to, cutting himself, covering the crowd in his blood, cutting the crowd, and just general shenanigans. Surprisingly nothing like this happened at the show, and I have to say Niklas is a very strong frontman who seemed well in control this time. The band performed well and it was a very enjoyable gig, and while the insanity and misery the music is based on was palpable and uncomfortably tight in the air, at no point did control on it nor the music slip.
I’d heard a bit about Uada before Inferno, and had them suggested in my youtube several times, so I was quite interested to see the Americans live. I was not disappointed, they are one of the few bands from the states I feel understand and capture the feeling Black Metal is all about. Layers of guitar create a menacing feeling overall, with a jagged coldness that feels more like desolate wilderness and jagged rock than the more traditional Scandinavian snowy landscapes. I hope I’ll get to properly see them on tour sometime, instead of in a festival setting, but if you can and enjoy bands like MGLA, try to catch them live.
Dark Funeral enter the stage after a lot of pomp and a grand 2 minute intro. The band sure know how to build anticipation, but sadly after the intro breaks, while the band performs competently, it feels almost like over the years the soul has been ripped from the band and they are just going through the motions. The performance feels stale and the band barely seem to even attempt to connect with the crowd in front of them.
Final band of the day is Obituary, and boy do they smash face. Known as a most excellent live band, they never fail to deliver a crushing show. The swooping long locks of singer John Tardy make for a menacing effect as he leans over the crowd, and fist are raised by the crowd to meet him. The crushing heaviness of the music combined with the utterly brutal energy just work in any live setting, and are a fitting closure of the first day here at Inferno Festival.
Inferno Metalfest has an interesting and diverse side program, from a historic walk through Oslo, an easter egg hunt, beer tasting, a mini tattoo convention, art show and even a few movie screenings. Friday I decide to check out one of these movie screenings to start of my day; Rockabul is one of the movies that was featured this year, telling the challenging and charming story of the only metal band in Afghanistan. In it we see the band learn to master their instruments, dealing with the challenges of living in a destabilized warzone, bigotry in religion, threats and the constant danger of terror attacks, to eventually escaping the destabilized country to play outside Afghanistan, and bring metal to their own people. All this while chasing a dream most of us understand: wanting to play kickass music, make people happy and have a crowd cheer at them. Foreign and familiar at once, it gives us an insight in what life is like in one of the longest most oppressed war zones in the world, and how ordinary people there are. It teaches about dogma, oppression, following dreams and freedom, all while never feeling overly politicized and even packing a good deal of heartfelt and funny moments. But most of all it shows us that metalheads everywhere are all very similar, no matter how different and diverse our backgrounds, we all love our music most of all
Sadly, watching Rockabul left me a little late for Mephorash, a deep ritualistic blackmetal band, who perform in occult robes and surrounded by candles. What little I managed to catch sounded excellent and while I did not get to give them my proper attention they are definitely on my try to catch again list for this festival.
One of the newer young bands signed to Season of Mist, Ulsect are had to describe. Drawing from a variety of influences the only thing I can say about them that encapsulates it all is pretty modern. The technically complex mixture of modern metal, technical death, blackmetal and other, more difficult to pin down influences smashes over the moderately filled John Dee crowd and manages to convince most. The rest of the day I catch whispers of other people recounting the show to friends, which bodes well for the young bands future
On the mainstage Audn are becoming a force to be reckoned with, each time I see these Icelanders they have somehow grown and improved as a live band, and as a result the band almost feels ready to fill a stage this large. Mixing a more atmospheric melodic take with the general icy and straightforward Icelandic style of blackmetal, they manage to appeal to both old school and newer fans of the genre. Especially frontman Hjalti Sveinsson is metamorphosing into an impressive frontman, between his primal screams and the cold stances, slow movements and icy glares he tosses at the crowd.
Even though Wiegedood are from my part of the European continent, that being the Benelux, I always keep missing these guys live. So seeing an opportunity to see them, I shuffle down into the John Dee venue. The dark and sorrowful tone the Belgians bring to their blackmetal really channels a deep sense of momento mori, where the more aggressive and abrasive songs and separated by sorrowful interludes, but sadly the crowd is restless and milling about a fair bit, which wasn’t conducive to enjoying this kind of show. Every bump jolts you out of the kind of attention this sort of band requires, and after a good 20 minutes I finally gave up and decided I’d go see them proper some other time closer to home.
And then for the main event this day: Emperor. Emperor are the absolute masters of their craft and Ihsahn is clearly a virtuoso at complex songwriting, not a note slips out of place in the performance. Ihsahn’s stage presence is rather introverted, but that gets balanced by his more present band member. Clearly, everyone turned out to see the master at work, but again the crowd at this festival has a bad habit of milling about, potentially worsened by the odd crowd flow in the venue. This meant that even when I tried to find a spot in the back, without a view, the constant bumps and movement, along with the close quarters gave an overall effect of being inside a can of sardines in a pinball machine. The band still manage to destroy ever fibre of my being to such a point that nothing else on the bill that day could possibly top it and I headed for an early night.
Saturday started off for me with Memoriam. Memoriam are potentially the most “fun” band on the line up this day, and somehow this works. The bands’ stage presence is exactly what you expect and the music a no-fuss fun sort of old school death metal that just gets straight to the point. Being a tribute to Bolt Thrower, this flavouring is heavily present in the music, but Memoriam set themselves apart through the cheerful and happy to be there stage presence the band has. They warm up the stoic and reserved frozen Norwegian crowd even causing a fair few moshpits.
Next, I wrestle my way down to the John Dee to catch some of Sinestro. I genuinely want to like Sinestro, and I know many are brought to tears by their mix of lamenting and haunting female vocals over dark, moody melodic doom, their spell simply passes me by every time. For those into this sort of melancholic beauty, they are excellent at what they do, but they somehow just can’t make me feel it.
Ihsahn is potentially the only band in existence that can make prog and blackmetal mesh and really work, and boy have many tried. The expert musicianship of Ihsahn and his band of protégés and his keen understanding of what blackmetal is and should feel like means that the prog works and doesn’t dim down the dark coldness that blackmetal brings to the table. Again the stage presence is that of an expert musician: introverted and staring at his feet while intensely immersed in the music, but because this band reflects Ihsahn’s personality and music more, with handpicked disciples playing the other instruments, the effect is much stronger this time.
After this impressive masterclass in how to blend genres, we head down to Ahab. Ahab is a band with a theme, and they stick to it. Focussing on the nautical depths and the tragedy of Captain Ahab and his eternal hunt for the white whale, alone and forlorn on the polar seas. The madness, oppression, cold and crushing unfriendliness of the sea brine the music and performance to such an extend you feel like you have twenty atmospheres of pressure pressing you down into those eternal depths. Blue lighting and hefty bass increase this effect and leave one gasping for breath.
Today’s headliner is found in Satyricon. Satyricon are always such an excellent live band. While the band for many purists has left the blackmetal moniker behind, they are definitely still punchy, dark and powerful. Live Satyr just utterly commands the stage, and while they are probably the most accessible of the blackmetal generation they are from, they are also the only ones able to compete with big summer festival headliners when it comes to show. As always you find yourself shouting along to the old hits, and even appreciating newer work that may not have had this impact on record.
As we enter the final day of the festival, a certain sadness already envelopes me. I start with Tjsuder, a band I’ve heard of but not seen before. A well-oiled machine of menacing and mean warlike blackmetal the band switch places smoothly s they scream at us to kill for Satan. Blastbeats and tight guitars pummel and corner the crowd gaining a response of many raised fists and horns. They made for an excellent wakeup call after the party the day before.
Next, we descend once again into the John Dee stage, this time to see Nadra. Tom G. Warrior says Ugh, or in this case singer, Ö says Ugh. With screams that almost cross over into wails, Ö writhes and contorts, arms outreaching, or occasionally commanding the crowd.
Face-meltingly fast twin guitars and drums, combined with a surprisingly jazzy bass leave you gasping for breath, only to be caught in the slower, cathartic and atmospheric intros and interludes. Fierce and primal, even minor issues with a squeaky guitar solo can’t ruin the gig for me.
Is there any metal festival where Napalm Death have not played or are going to play? The band played so much they’ve become veterans of the road. Punching old-school death with clear punk influences, the short songs get punctuated by hyperactive frontman Barney exceptional and funny banter. The man in genuinely welcoming and hilarious, and while you may come for a wild and aggressive show and the moshpit, you stay because you are in stitches at the jokes and charm of Barney and co. A joyous, beautiful mess is the best way to describe them in all their crusty glory where you can’t even tell if songs are played well or not because it doesn’t matter. The band sprouted the biggest mosh pit of the festival and according to Barney every song shouted from the crowd should be on the setlist, somewhere.
We enter the John dee to the dark, murky ambient world of Sammasch, a wall of guitars and layers hits us almost as thick as the fog the band like to shroud themselves in on stage, obscured by ornate robes and backlit in blue. Sammach knows their craft well, but I’ve just seen them play nearly the same show so often the past few years, that it no longer has much impact on me. I hope they will revamp their show a bit in the future, but after about 15 minutes I decide having a bite to eat may be better, as I also wanted to catch some of Electric Wizard.
Electric Wizard are a bit of an odd one out on the lineup, and as per usual play in near full darkness, with videos of 70’s fetishy videos projected above them. They do what they do well, but I’ve just seen them one time too many. The slow drawn our 12-minute songs are still excellent (though the older classics stand out in this) but I’m just not in the headspace for their stoner doom like sound to envelop me after three days of merciless metal.
I decided to have a look at Grave more on a whim and didn’t really know what to expect. It was a pleasant surprise, and the first time I’ve seen the giant rig of lamps in the john dee use, though again mostly from the back. The band are active and showmanship is high as they punch through the surly Norwegian stoicism and actually manage to get a bit of a metal party going.
Finally, I go to see Carpathian Forest. Their show was less messed up than expected having seen them fumble their way through their set at Eindhoven Metal Meeting in December, it seems Nattefrost is much more sober, so no falling over. The performance is still sub-par though, with the vocals being almost unrecognizable and some strange interlude where Nattefrost grabbed a harmonica, I’m not quite sure what to think of Carpathian Forest live, but they sure are entertaining.
And with that our unholy Easter celebration is over, and we all get ready to go back to our normal lives. That is until next Easter, when many will meet again to stare into the darker corners of music.
SUSANNE A. MAATHUIS