There have been rumblings that the lineup for this year’s Inferno is too conservative, that its status as Norway’s leading metal festival has left it unwilling to take risks. But not only is it about to play host to arguably the biggest revelation in its 16-year history, its opening club night has always offered a small snapshot of the underground’s cutting edge. Admittedly, that doesn’t include SAHG , playing at John Dee below the main venue, even if their Sabbath-infused classicism is taken into idiosyncratic, often soaring realms as Olav Iversen’s dynamic, singed vocals lead them fearlessly through that perilous territory known as ‘arena potential’. At the warehouse-like Blå venue, ORKAN’s  greasy, punk-stained take on black metal combines an urban warrior spirit with barrelling riffs that sound like they’re hacking their way through a forest of barbed wire. LUCIFER’S CHILD  feature a member of Rotting Christ and draw on a similar, soil-rich groove but take a more fevered and visceral approach to the epic, as a packed venue punches fists like a warrior clan under their command.
Having relocated to Sweden from Chile, HETROERTZEN  are a different band to the one that played Beyond The Gates in 2012, with a new, ghoulish-looking vocalist and a more open-ended form of black metal ritualism. Thankfully, they’re just as entrancing, riding an ever-expanding, tantric cusp that keeps you on perpetual, third-eye-prised-open tenterhooks. It’s up to EXODUS  to provide a satisfying, if somewhat less edifying end to the night, the likes of Blood Command and Piranha providing enough old-school sustenance to power a wall-to-wall riot.
Inferno proper starts off at the Rockefeller in tentative style. For all the graceful tangents and aerated psychedelia of his solo material, ICS VORTEX  is a self-effacing frontman, as if his booming weathervane of a voice were a mild embarrassment. He sounds like he’s passing the time when he could be re-weaving it instead. VADER  offer proof that death metal is a potent force in Oslo. Triumph Of Death sends out lead breaks like grappling hooks, transcending its death/thrash roots to massed chants and proving what an all-round classic metal band the Poles are. Despite Mortuus’s hulking presence, MARDUK  still come across as more battle-ready unit than singularly embodied force of will. For all their route-one black metal, it’s the doomier likes of Temple Of Decay that assert their potency most, as their conviction takes on an epic hue. More modern US acts haven’t always fared brilliantly at Inferno, but downstairs, CATTLE DECAPITATION  feed their death/grind into a reverb-drenched maelstrom that sounds as though it’s about to tear the John Dee a new portal. But it’s still no preparation for the all-out mindfuck that’s about to follow…
It’s been 20 years since MYSTICUM  were last on the live circuit, but tonight proves not so much a comeback as an incandescent meteor smashing through the walls of consciousness. The curtains pull back to reveal the three members each atop huge, angled plinths that double as video screens married to the backdrop to spew a torrent of stark, black and white images pouring out to assault your retinas to the point where you’re forced to abandon all rational thought – or capacity for depth perception. It looks like an imposing Satanic rally as graphic pentagrams and all manner of mind-altering geometry, slogans and sigils pour out amidst further, stroboscopic onslaught. The band are equally relentless, a ruthlessly efficient storm of industrial black metal that also drives you to the point of sensory overload. The looming figure of General Cerastes looks like some classic horror henchman and tonight they’re a synapse-rewiring trip that burns itself deep into your quivering cerebral cortex.
BLOOD RED THRONE  are Norway’s longest-standing death metal practitioners, still tapped to its source like some blood-sucking mega-mosquito as Yngve ‘Bolt’ Christiansen’s monstrous roar erupts from the groove-laden brutalism. If SODOM  sound out of sync initially, a guest appearance by Bömbers’ Tore Bratseth for a venue-erupting rendition of Iron Fist proves a full reset and from hereon in it’s thrash nirvana as Agent Orange and a supercharged City Of God send the crowd into raptures. SUFFOCATION  were always at their peak when their super-tight technicality was balanced out by Frank Mullen’s blue-collar earthiness, and as impressive as they still are, new vocalist Ricky Myers can’t quite bring the same force of personality to bear. Iceland’s WORMLUST  offer a sum of their influences, from Mgła through to hints of Sólstafir, but have yet to become a transformative experience in their own right. They still fare better than CRAFT , whose cult black metal appeal clearly doesn’t derive from the disengaged, spiritless live incarnation. NILE’s  cheesy between-song banter is still annihilated by a groove so dense it seems to have its own gravitational pull bending time and space to delirious effect. A closing, swarming Black Seeds Of Vengeance becomes a thunderous act of deliverance, but from, y’know, below.
These are early days for ORDER  but they already sound like a force to be reckoned with, taking cues from Celtic Frost but blazing a path of wrongness with masterful economy. MORK  are another revelation, steeped in cavernous grimness but with an upfront, irresistible groove that courses through every muscle like a surge of adrenaline. If you’re not drunk during NIFELHEIM  you’re doing it wrong, and their bug-eyed black/thrash rampage will having you raising a comradely fist to everyone you pass on your way back from the bar. The two resplendently leather’n’studded, skullet-sporting Gustavsson brothers may be unlikely metal gods, but there is no hunger more ravenous and the moshpit looks as though it’s fighting amongst itself to make a sacrificial offering. MOONSORROW  are a Viking metal band who take themselves entirely seriously and it pays off in solemn yet epic style. No black metal band is quite as steeped in history as MAYHEM , and amidst a spectacular ossuary-like stage set they make that history manifest, bringing on former singers Maniac and Messiah as well as former drummer Manheim. But rather than a disjointed affair, the band are as tight and fired up as they’ve ever been, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Freezing Moon and a final, feral blast of Carnage still blazing like a beacon on the extreme metal landscape.