Midgardsblot live review – Midgard Historical Centre, Borre, Norway

Wardruna raise the spirits amidst ancient burial grounds at Norwegian festival Midgardsblot

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THURSDAY

The gods are benevolent once more. In a small Viking village set up amidst the burial mounds of Borre that look imperiously across Norway’s southern coast, a group of traditionally attired minstrels, storytellers and attendees bearing shields, drums and flaming torches, are taking the short march into Midgardsblot’s main arena to perform an inaugural blot – a sacramental offering and a petition for good fortune. Bathed in forecast-defying sunshine and overlooked by a reconstructed great hall, a circle is formed. Within, a fire is lit, audience-participation chants are sung and calls are made to the North, the East, the South and the West, to Freya and to Odin and for the continuation of good weather and camaraderie as the gathered are invited to offer a personal sacrifice into the flames.

Only in its second year, Midgardsblot has already become a point of pilgrimage, drawing an audience from across the world. For metal-heads, the idea of a Viking festival sells itself, but this festival offers something uniquely immersive and communal. From tours of the site to the camping grounds that look across the Oslofjord bay, movies and seminars – not least Wardruna’s Einar Selvik’s introduction to runes – through to archery, axe-throwing and various combative endeavours, marketplaces, the village, forest paths and all-round sense of belonging that Midgardsblot engenders, coming here feels like a connection is being made – to your fellow travellers and to history. At least a third of the people here are in period dress, including children, and like Roadburn, the chilled, accommodating atmosphere is tuned to a frequency reserved for festivals that have the effect of crossing over a much-needed threshold.

“Did you spill my mead?!” settled the old-fashioned way

“Did you spill my mead?!” settled the old-fashioned way
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

FRIDAY

The main stage is an imposing presence, flanked by huge cowled figureheads and bordered by forests on one side and the great hall on the other. A sunny Midgardsblot begins in anything but earnest as TROLLFEST [8] pour across it in black tracksuits, looking and sounding like renegades from some 70s kids’ TV show as they crash through folk metal’s cheese barrier to some absurdly engaging world on the far side. That they’re largely composed of Norwegian black metal musicians only adds to the bewilderment, but their jamborees are an affront to taste and better judgement and are strangely all the more exhilarating for it. If only relative to that burst of unruly energy, SKÄLMÓLD [6] sound a bit underpowered. Appearing in the aftermath of a re-enacted Viking battle in front of the stage, the uncostumed Icelanders’ heaving, Viking metal stomp is driven by drums that would normally lead to an immediate slave revolt. But while their groove-laden assault is an often uplifting chucking of red meat to the crowd, they lack the wild spark of their predecessors.

One of black metal’s biggest crowd-pullers right now, INQUISTION [7] are a more quizzical prospect amongst these surroundings. Although classic Norwegian sound is part of the Seattle duo’s DNA, this is a mesmerisingly mutated form, Dagon’s monotone croak like a prototype for Abbath that someone forgot to decommission as he and drummer Incubus channel charged, sloshing currents as if forming songs from raw cosmic matter.

Unsurprisingly, ENSLAVED [8] hew mainly towards their older material, opener Jotunblod detonating like a shrapnel-hurling ice bomb, while Fenris is another spidery lifeform pulled from Norway’s black metal breeding grounds. The band are anything but grim, though, with Grutle telling jokes between songs, and a closing Isa is a rousing unfurling of sails that offers a portent for what’s to come.

The Enslaved/Wardruna collaboration that is SKUGGSJÁ [8] takes on an added power in the wake of the album’s release, everyone gathered here now closely bound to the dynamics of this spiritually charged suite. Despite musical niggles on the night, the invocations, turbulent currents and massed chants become a clarion call binding audience and environment into something still thirsty and profound.

There’s still time for one last hurrah, as Hardanger fiddle virtuoso MARTINE KRAFT [7] sends a wave of elation and dancing throughout the great hall – a flighty brew of Appalachian, Irish and Nordic jigs that spins old-time magic in this ornately decorated interior.

Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson and Ice Dale dust off some golden oldies

Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson and Ice Dale dust off some golden oldies
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

SATURDAY

The brainchild of Kati Ran, multi-instrumentalist and possessor of a voice that could becalm Genghis Khan, LEAF [8] are forced to start their debut live performance before the main arena has opened, but the rush towards the stage is an indication of their cache amongst pagan folk fans. Intricate and worldly, their journey from pristine tapestries to full-blooded, swirling rites sends devotees into a frenzy.

Probably not the subject of too much rumination on the part of the festival’s bookers, BLOT’s [7] mid-paced pagan black metal tows a familiar if fulfilling line, many of the melodies based on old Norwegian songs. Although in the same ballpark, KIRKABRAND [5] seem to be merely going through the paces, and no amount of corpsepaint can hide the lack of fire in their by-rote black metal. Appropriately, the first drops of rain appear in time for HAMFERÐ [9], as the besuited, Faeroese funeral doom crew hit a colossal resonance that seems to charge every particle in the arena. Oxygen-
gorging grooves fall like edicts from on high and, in Jón Aldará, they have one of the most superlative voices in metal; his growl so rich you can imagine David Bellamy rubbing it between his fingers and his plaintive, operatic wail as if on behalf of all mankind drops jaws and turns heads, everyone seeking confirmation of what they’ve just heard.

Bringing in an exotic, Eastern touch, and then stretching it over a taut, thrashy template, MELECHESH [8] send riffs racing through the crowd like a fearsome djinn whose one mission is to make you bang your head. Keeping the energy levels near breaking point, TSJUDER [8] prove there are still deep reserves of power to be mined from unapologetically unreconstructed Norwegian black metal, Nag is a charismatic, many-spiked frontman as the band wrestle gristly, writhing riffs like they’re being picked from carrion, blending atmosphere and heads-down, malefic chug to thrilling effect.

Standard-bearers not just for the Midgardsblot ethos, but for a historically and spiritually aware pagan culture that’s developed in their wake, WARDRUNA [9] take to the stage blaring twin horns that look like shower heads from an age of giants amidst a downpour that only serves to make the experience yet more elemental. Their ability to usher something long-dormant and ageless into our collective consciousness becomes even more humbling amongst these surroundings. New songs make their presence felt – Tyr is an imperious set-opener, Runaljod’s skeletal yet resounding, crosshatched percussion is a determined yet kinda funky heralding of new dawns and Odal’s migratory pulse blossoms into massed, soul-releasing harmonies, taking on added resonance when frontman Einar Selvik is joined by his two children, becoming a symbol of regeneration that echoes this most unique and restorative of festivals.