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Eistnaflug 2016 live review

Opeth and Meshuggah beam down to Iceland’s otherworldly metal fest

WEDNESDAY/THURSDAY

In an age where the ‘festival experience’ has become a more pressing priority for many than a love of the music these events provide, Eistnaflug strikes the balance of melding art and spectacle better than most. Situated in the tiny Icelandic town of Neskaupstaður, a place so remote that you feel you’re steps away from the edge of the Earth and with a view so breathtaking that could have been lifted from the frame of a Stanley Kubrick movie, Eistnaflug invites the cream of its country’s underground, and a handful of bigger names acts from across the globe, to venture into this untouched territory and celebrate their musical achievements.

A headline performance on the Wednesday from MARDUK [7] finds the band continuing to sound as raw, unrefined and ghastly as they did 25 years ago. These are old dogs, with no new tricks, but they remain effective.

Kicking off the Thursday on the main Boli stage, the piercing, progressive black metal of ZHRINE [8] is one of the highlights of the festival. Gradually hypnotising a transfixed crowd for what seems an eternity, they then lash out with all the venom of a serpent strike. On the smaller Brennivin stage, ABOMINOR [7] go for pure muscular bludgeon that does the job, but lacks fireworks.

SÓLSTAFIR [8], on the other hand, are all about coercing myriad influences from their musical pot. It’s an oddly sparse crowd for the first of two shows, but they run through a set that is both riff heavy and intelligently icy. Fusing death, thrash and Middle Eastern folk into a taut, crowd-rousing current, MELECHESH [8] are a breathless blast that feels like a victory march from another world. ANGIST’s [7] occult and mesmeric death metal rumblings are always one of the big draws of Eistnaflug, but unfortunately this time they’re niggled by sound issues, with Edda Tegeder Óskarsdóttir’s vocals lost in the mix. Performance-wise, however, they nail it. On the Boli stage headliners IMMOLATION [6] are beginning to look and sound their age. The songs are reassuringly old-school, reliably head-nodding, but the band themselves creak in too many places for 2016, especially when put in direct comparison with a band like MISÞYRMING [8] and their relentlessly foul, modern take on black metal. Their set barely pauses for breath, and the stench of evil permeates as they bid us all farewell.

Immolation: reassuringly old school, but creaky

Immolation: reassuringly old school, but creaky
(Image: © Falk-Hagen Bernshausen)

FRIDAY

Friday begins with SAKTMOÐIGUR [6] bringing some old-school punk rock to the event. With a guitar tone and pace reminiscent of Poison Idea it’s not bad call. BENEATH [7] do a nice line in Erik Rutan-worshipping death metal, proving as savage as any of the influences they wear so clearly on their collective sleeve. NAÐRA [8] are one of the reasons Icelandic black metal is now so firmly on the map. Primal, aggressive and intense, they share members with the aforementioned scene forerunners Misþyrming. If only more ‘metalcore’ bands could take a note from CONFLICTIONS [8]. They trash everything in their path and recall the likes of Integrity or xCanaanx in their single-minded pursuit to make hardcore painful. They couldn’t be much more different to KONTINUUM [9]. A mongrel meld of Scandinavian gothic noir and the clattering post-rock of Sonic Youth, they’ve ended up as a spellbinding prize pedigree and steal the festival. Austrian blackened death metallers BELEPHEGOR [8] are an assault on the senses: the thrashing riffs they expel race to rapidly flashing lights as bloodied band members menacingly stalk the stage – and if you peer closely, you might just catch a glimpse of the pigs heads onstage…

There’s a touch of indie rock to the guitar style of MOMENTUM [7], but they still manage to conjure a tornado of noise when they’re in full flow. If the blasting came more often they’d be a real force. AMORPHIS’s [8] doom-laden folk proves equally immersive whether they’re promoting latest album Under The Red Cloud or going back to songs such as 1994’s Drowned Maid. The second set from SÓLSTAFIR [9] is much more of an event. This time, latest album Ótta is the basis of the setlist, but, with a bigger crowd and a grander stage from them to dominate, it certainly feels like the band are much more on form and focused. The corpsepaint splashed all over the band is a black metal red herring from THE VINTAGE CARAVAN [7]. This is pure revivalist retro rock and live, the trio are masters of their craft.

One of the greatest moments of the entire festival is watching a venue full of death and black metal fans dancing like maniacs to lone Parisian synthwaver PERTUBATOR [8]. The electronic pulse of his music may seem like an odd fit on the Brennivin stage, but it’s sharp and vulgar enough to work brilliantly.

Black magic: The Vintage Caravan can't hide their true colours

Black magic: The Vintage Caravan can't hide their true colours
(Image: © Falk-Hagen Bernshausen)

SATURDAY

Multi-member Icelanders GLERAKUR [6] almost have more people onstage than they do in the audience: a price to pay for having the ’early’ Saturday slot of 5pm – hey, it’s early when bands are on ‘til 3am. Still, their droney, rhythmically repetitive ambient black metal is somehow soothing to hungover ears. The Brennivin stage plays host to the remarkable, pain-soaked noise of WORLD NARCOSIS [9]. Like a wounded Converge playing grind, they’re untamed, unpredictable and absurdly exciting. OPETH [8] draw a huge, fanatical audience to a set that nicely spans their career, starting off with The Grand Conjuration and going all the way back to 1998’s Demon Of The Fall. Frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt is on wonderfully witty form as always, quipping “This is our last song…” before song number three. The audience lap it up just as much as they do the music.

Rumour has it that the level of anticipation for MESHUGGAH [8] rivals the excitement for any set ever seen at the festival. But the Swedes don’t sway to emotion, instead their machine grinds and throbs with implausible precision – as usual. It’s fair to say that HAM [7] are divisive. Some people at the front are in awe of their doom-pop-meets-Sparks weirdness. But there are others that stand aghast at the sights and sounds of a genuinely impossible-to-categorise band. There is a slickness to AUÐN [8], both musically and aesthetically, that marks them out as another band to keep an eye on – white hot black metal with panache and flourishes of genuine rock star quality.

They may be competing with the cheesy disco party taking place over at the second venue, but OPHIDIAN I [7] still draw a sizeable audience to bang heads to their raucous, raging tech death. SINMARA [7]’s pulverising black metal with a hint of death is chaotic and so crushing that we barely notice the sound issues as they play past the witching hour and beyond. The last band of the weekend are the troll-masked, brutal death metallers SEVERED [7] who close Eistnaflug in fine style, making muddy, ugly, ferocious riffs seem like the most fun thing in the world. Throats are ripped, beers are drained and everyone leaves beaming in the breathtaking, still sun-smeared, early morning.