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Things Learned At: Eistnaflug
Bob Cluness , July 17th, 2015 10:49

Bob Cluness gets battered by both the weather and the music in Iceland

Photo by Johanna Persson

Small festival changes can be both good and painful

The talk from many punters at this year's Eistnaflug metal festival is of the changes in size and organisation that were brought to bear upon it. Over the past decade, Eistnaflug (English translation: "flight of the testicles") has grown from a group of friends playing for each other on a countryside jolly, to one of the highlights of the Icelandic cultural calendar, while gaining true cult status in the international metal scene as the little festival that's located on the edge of the world. What has made Eistnaflug special in the past is its camaraderie and closeness, where both bands and fans share the same spit and space, along with a high level of Campari-fuelled antics and debased craziness.

But with growing numbers and greater international recognition, this year saw the organisers take the decision that's been hanging over the festival for years, in moving the festival from the old venue, Egilsbuð, to the local sports hall. Everything has now shifted up a gear, from the logistics (a huge soundsystem, along with special cables that have to be imported to Iceland just to handle Behemoth's lightshow) and the international acts on the bill (the aforementioned Behemoth, Carcass, Kvelertak, Inquisition, Enslaved, etc), to the space and crowd dynamics (press boxes, a drinks tent/merch marquee outside the venue, special VIP artist areas). Artists lower on the bill now sound much smaller than the main headliners. Conan's early day set for example is incredible, but their sludgy doom metal lacks that full jackhammer-to-your-prostate rumble that is surely needed.

The Icelandic weather is a cruel mistress

On my first night at Neskaupstaður, where Eistnaflug is held, an elderly man giving me a lift to my accommodation tells me, "There's that thing that man from Game Of Thrones says; "Winter Is Coming." Well not only did it come here, it hasn't gone away! We haven't seen any summer here at all so far…"

And he's right. The weather in East Iceland during this year's festival is more atrocious that usual, with freezing fog, low clouds of doom and snow on the hills (in mid-July!) that is by torrential rain that flooded out the local campsite. Luckily the local municipality and volunteers step in to help on the Saturday by using the Egilsbuð venue as a shelter for those festivalgoers whose tents are washed away by the deluge.

Running off-venue events along anarcho-communist lines brings results but can also a pain in the fucking arse

Despite the new ethos of professionalism of Eistnaflug, along with the fact that the Mayhemisphere (a long running gesamtkunstwerk of an off-venue held in an abandoned factory by the shore) finally shut down for good last year, there is still loads of DIY flavoured chaos and action throughout the weekend. Thursday night sees the Hið Myrka Man label organise Myrkamakt, an off-off-venue event in a place called Blúskjallarinn ("The Blues Cellar"), while Friday and Saturday night see Egilsbuð taken over by the "official" off-venue programme, which is run by FALK records (Of which I'm a member) and the local black metal label/collective, Vánagandr. In keeping on with the underground spirit of previous years, both of our events are run along the lines of collaborative artistic freedom, no domineering centralised control, and everyone mucking in for the greater good.

What actually happens is a bucketload of drama and bedlam, as Sod's Law was fully realised to in the most anarchic of ways. The PA at Blúskjallarinn blows up towards the end of Myrkamakt, causing some of the organisers to visibly age from the stress. At Egilsbuð meanwhile, we have to deal with everything from sourcing bass amps at the last minute, and continuous last minute line-up changes, to almost having the venue closed down on Saturday due to a hazmat incident as Marcellvs L (a Brazilian video artist whose noise set, comprised of field recordings of horses, brought several metalheads close to tears) ends his performance with the use of petrol and a t-shirt that filled the whole building and the restaurant next door with fumes.

But despite teetering on the brink of disaster, both off-venues provide intense and intimate experiences and performances. There's the choleric punk and fury of Börn and DYS, the pungent gothwave of Kælan Mikla, and the vital edge-of-destruction hardcore of Grit Teeth and the hopekrusher collaboration between AMFJ and Abominor. These are mixed with more unusual choices, such as the smeared hip hop beats of Lord Pusswhip, and stand-up comedy from artist and writer Hugliekur Dagsson.

The local rockers bring on the sleaze and the rage

Despite being caught up in the off-venue anarchy, there is plenty of local rock and metal madness on offer at the main stage. On the metal front I manage to see local veterans Severed bring dense, seething death metal fronted by criminally underrated scarecrow-on-meth Ingó Olafsson, who lurches and roars like a wounded animal. Meanwhile, Momentum take their post-metal sounds into full-on Isis territory (their opening song has rather scary signs of Creed-style vocals appearing, but thankfully the band sense this and killed such foolishness before it got out of hand). The technical rock theatrics of Agent Fresco bassist Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson going into full Pete Wentz mode is especially entertaining as he jumped and threw his bass around like a shiny rag doll.

The most fun from the local bands during Eistnaflug comes from two different rock modes. Grissalappalisa are neither the heaviest nor the most brutal of bands on this year's line-up, but I find their avant rock style thoroughly enjoyable to watch and listen to. Key to this was the smut-ridden, gender-bending antics of singer Gunnar Ragnarsson, who in leather trousers, topless waistcoat and glam make-up does his best Dolph Lundgren does Hedwig-on-E impersonation: pouting, grinding his hips and stroking his nipples. On the other end of the scale, hardcore four-piece Muck are full of visceral disgust and acrimony. With a set that mixes brand new tracks along with standards such as 'Here Comes The Man' and 'My City', they exhibit a pungent, gobby energy that causes this slovenly reviewer to partake in a short but sharp bout of slam dancing. There's still life in the old dog yet!

The icy, grip of Icelandic black metal is white hot right now

If there was one thing that everyone agrees on this year, from media types and industry wonks to regular concert goers, it was that the Icelandic black metal scene has definitely come into its own. Building on the vanguard efforts of local acts such as Svartidauði and Wormlust, the performances from the bands who played this year displayed a brutal, bleak aesthetic that is markedly different from what you get in other places. Over on the main stage, despite the scandalously low PA levels there's blistering early afternoon sets from Sinmara and Misþyrming, both bands spitting out volatile displays of revulsion and abjection. (And in the case of Sinmara – an actual groove). In the off-venues meanwhile, there are decidedly rawer, filthier sounds coming from new band Mannviera at Blúskjallarinn on Thursday.

But the performance everyone is talking about is Úlfmessa II at Egilsbuð on Friday night. A collaborative effort between the bands Misþyrming, Naðra, NYIÞ, and Grafir, it is a music performance as occultic ritual like nothing else I've ever seen, taking on the visceral elements from last year's performance and amping up the atmospheric dread by a factor of oblivion. Over 90 minutes, they draw the crowd into a murky liturgy of invocations and sacramental offerings. The music began as mournful drones from accordions trumpets organs, before descending into an abyss of Circle Of Ouroborus style post-punk clangs and grim black metal sounds. For a performance rite that leaned heavily on the arcane and cabalistic, the Úlfmessa wisely steered clear of any cartoonish Baphomet-pentagram-666-HAILSATAN symbolism or dodgy runic neo-Nordic nationalism. Instead they carve out their own slightly Lovecraftian mythos, that dares to invoke the inhuman, the unutterable of the void. Dressed all in black with black hoods, there is a free-flow to the proceedings where you aren't sure who is playing at any given moment.

But why be Nekro when you can bathe yourself in Leather?

Saturday night is the night when metal would be confronted by the musky, oily stench of Norwegians Kvelertak, whose supercharged rock workout causes most of the capacity crowd at the main stage to completely lose their shit. Culling most of their setlist from their current album Meir, the triple guitar axe attacks and the hunched growls and from human maelstrom Erlend Hjelvik throw wave after wave of slamming riffs at the audience. It is an incredible experience that pretty much reaffirms faith in rock and metal. I check my notebook afterwards and find that the only thing I wrote about Kevelertak's performance is:

"((AC/DC + Fucked Up) + (Andrew WK + Blastbeats)) x Riff + Beard = LEATHER!"

The big guns fire hard, but only Behemoth leave everyone for (un)dead

Despite the untold existential pain caused by the early cancellation of Godflesh, many of the foreign metal acts headlining Eistnaflug this year put in some varied performances, determinable depending upon how old you are. If you are a decrepit, aging metalhead like me, then Thursday night saw Carcass bring back memories of catching them on the Raw Power TV show in the early 90s as Jeff, Bill and the rest of the gang mixed tunes from their Surgical Steel album with classics 'Incarnated Solvent Abuse' and 'Corporal Jigsore Quandary'.

Inquisition's Friday night performance divids some people as some find it difficult to get past the whole "necro" aspect of their look and sound, along with Dagon's idiosyncratic frog-vocal style. But if you look past all of that, you could see that his voice in sections were more like Inuit throat singing, while their songs had everything, from face-melting blastbeasts and slam dancing thrash, to an uber-heavy low-end guitar sound that defied explanation. In comparison, Enslaved's set comes off a bit pedestrian, their mix of black metal and experimental post-rock laced with some of the cheesiest banter of the weekend ("When you mix fire and ice, you create life. This is 'Building With Fire'!").

But of course it was the Polish metal bastards and satan-botherers Behemoth who make the biggest mark. Their stage presence has all the hallmarks of grand guignol death theatre: "wind tunnel" fans at the front of the stage; the huge drum riser; the Legion Of Doom shoulder pads; the smooth stage direction and movements; the use of fire and incense; the band sprouting hoods and devils horns in the encore; as well as a light show that burned your retinas clean off. Add to this a set list that mixes tracks from their current album The Satanist with older tracks such as 'Christians To The Lions' and 'Alas, Lord Is Upon Me,' and you get a performance of unbridled intensity and pitiless barbarism that repeatedly slams your face on the concrete, setting a new standard for metal performances on the barren rock.