Norway’s black metal masters return to their roots

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Part tattoo convention, part celebration of roots of Norwegian black metal, it’s telling that the one- off Blekkmetal (not to be pronounced with a South African accent, ‘blekk’ is Norwegian for ‘ink’) is such a friendly affair. For anyone who’s been to a Bergen festival before, be it Hole In The Sky, Beyond The Gates, or Blastfest, that won’t be a surprise – the sense of community that binds the scene together here can be disarming for any newcomers expecting to find echoes of its incendiary roots.

The brainchild of Jannicke Wiese-Hansen, the artist and tattooist behind the cover for Satyricon’s Dark Medieval Times, as well as Burzum’s most famous sleeves, Blekkmetal proves a multi-sensory experience. Aside from the constant buzz in the second hall, interviews are conducted with musicians, producers and journalists, recalling black metal’s early days and development; cult horror movies are screened and an exhibition featuring art from Jannicke, True Norwegian Black Metal photographer Peter Beste and Gaahl, his haunting paintings at once alien and deeply soulful, the often shaven-headed figures in the frames looking like the last people on the planet frozen in the midst of arcane rituals worthy of a Ben Marcus book.

Enslaved: Grutle rifles through the band’s past

Enslaved: Grutle rifles through the band’s past (Image credit: Ester Segarra)

ENSLAVED [8] kick off the main event with a set dedicated to their pre-Bloodhelm era, and for all the fierceness of the opening Heimdallr, Grutle’s rasp like a bullet spiralling through a rifle barrel, they’re clearly having the time of their lives, Grutle’s comedic interludes and the banter between him and Ivar Bjørnson not the mark of a band returning atavistically to their past, but rather speeding forward through the channels of the underground to the open vistas ahead. Keyboardist Herbrand gets a night off from clean vocals as Loke carves its way through sloshing walls of caustic riffs, and the instrumental Norvegr, played for the first time ever, offers a final moment of respite, a transitional casting off from the ferocious raids of yore to the progressive realms beyond.

Although **AETURNUS [7] **have moved into more deathly territories, frontman Ares’ rock-crushing gargle suits both styles, whether surging through what sounds like electrical storms or navigating more methodical territory. Ranging across 20 years of history, theirs is an endeavour and purpose drawn over the groove as tight as a drum skin. GEHENNA [7] are another band whose pendulum has swung between death and black metal over the years, even if their latest album, Unravel, saw them move into some of the bleakest territories of their career. Tonight they set the grim, unearthly tone with The Shivering Voice Of The Ghost, its mid-paced, keyboard-borne incantation like spectral voices brooding between the walls. Aside from a hoodie-wearing bassist who could’ve made a bit more effort in the corpsepaint department, the band’s petrified zombie look is a fitting front for a set that makes up for lack of dynamism by sounding like it’s drilling into some subterranean vault and letting the spirits free.

Hades Almighty’s Ask Ty: soot first, ask questions later

Hades Almighty’s Ask Ty: soot first, ask questions later (Image credit: Ester Segarra)

Back after a 14-year absence, HADES ALMIGHTY [8] are a reminder that Viking metal set sail from far darker waters than the cartoon bluster that passes under its banner now, the ritualistic grooves of their late-80s/early 90s songs expanded on even further with tracks from the stunning new Pyre, Era Black! EP. His face smeared in Kohl, new frontman Ask Ty has a presence every bit as commanding as his voice, his incensed sermons resounding through the EP’s title track, harnessing its main riff to an overpowering, repetitive groove as if it were an oar-driven longship bearing down upon you.

Although GAAHLS WYRD [8] is the newest reincarnation for their mercurial, eponymous frontman, tonight is about reawakening his past. Emerging ceremoniously from a horned, wicker frame, his opening salvo of Trelldom tracks sound as if they’re being mainlined direct into your pineal gland as they immediately hit a crescendo and radiate out from there until all senses are overwhelmed. Gaahl has a host of soul-branding voices at his command, but guest appearances from Warduna’s Einar Selvik during the Trelldom songs and Lindy-Fay Hella for God Seed’s signature track, Litr, offer yet more vehement layers, while the Gorgoroth classics such as Carving A Giant career around an entranced hall, the Gaahl death stare and audience-directed horns all hallmarks of a uniquely charismatic icon.

Opening proceedings the following Saturday are C.L.A.S.P. RITUAL [6], an assortment of artists including Gaahl once more (sharing a stage with Gaahlskagg partner in crime Skaag, for a rendition of I Am Sin), Cult Of Fire frontman Devilish resplendent in long pointy headdress and Taake’s Hoest paying tribute to the rumblings of black metal’s wider world as Bathory, Beherit and Master’s Hammer are covered alongside Burzum. The only trouble is that the changeover between frontmen breaks up any possible momentum, making the whole event too staggered to truly become something in its own right.

Old Funeral: Abbath reaches back into his pre-Immortal days

Old Funeral: Abbath reaches back into his pre-Immortal days (Image credit: Ester Segarra)

Another band returning from the mists of time are** OLD FUNERAL [8]**, the band Abbath, Demonaz and Varg Vikernes first cut their teeth in. Tonight is the lineup for 1990s Abduction Of Limbs demo, a non-corpsepainted, alternately studious and goofy Abbath leading Bömbers partner Tore Brastreth and drummer Padde through the title track’s cavernous descent into death metal purgatory; Annoying Individual, thrashing like some abandoned, newborn abomination; and Skin And Bone, with riffs prodding like rusted scalpels as Abbath’s vocals are a vomit into the cavity. It’s ugly, saturated in a wrongness both Autopsy and the new breed of occult death metallers have since descended upon vulture-style, and a final rendition of Celtic Frost’s Procreation Of The Wicked is yet more foul meat for a joyous crowd.

Kampfar’s Dolk shows his devotion to the master

Kampfar’s Dolk shows his devotion to the master (Image credit: Ester Segarra)

For all its celebration of the Norwegian sound, the presence of Bathory hangs over much of the festival, the costume-clad** HELHEIM [7]** offering their own cover of Home Of The Brave, a clear inspiration for their epic if still raging pagan metal, and KAMPFAR’s** [8]** logo a barely disguised tribute to the goat adorning Bathory’s debut album. Frontman Dolk rouses the hall through a storming set of early tracks, and an appearance by estranged guitarist Thomas Andreasson is a genuinely emotional moment. If TAAKE’s** [8] **UK gigs have marked charismatic frontman Hoest out as black metal’s answer to Iggy Pop, their hometown Bergen shows have a more true cult air. Hoest is a venerated figure here, a feral figure stalking the stage as tracks off Doedskvad storm out like a python racing though a labyrinth after prey and black metal’s past and presence are embodied in idiosyncratic yet fully resonant fashion.

Taake’s Hoest: to the rescue!

Taake’s Hoest: to the rescue! (Image credit: Ester Segarra)
Jonathan Selzer

Having freelanced regularly for the Melody Maker and Kerrang!, and edited the extreme metal monthly, Terrorizer, for seven years, Jonathan is now the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Bemoans his obsolete superpower of being invisible to Routemaster bus conductors, finds men without sideburns slightly circumspect, and thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.