Published February 5, 2016
Hafsteinn Viðar, the man behind the solo black metal project Wormlust, requested that our interview take place at the Cathedral of Christ the King, preferably in the confessional. If the confessional was unavailable, he said, then we could perhaps walk together in the nearby cemetery. “Black metal is the most beautiful sound in the world if you give it the chance,” he whispers carefully as we sit in the pews. “I see it as celestial, but discordant.” With his face turned towards the ground and an encyclopaedic knowledge of not only black metal but also art and philosophy, Hafsteinn is the troubled-artist stereotype made flesh. He’s sweet and kind, yet a clear introvert. Even in the spacious cathedral, I feel like I’m infringing on him. Along with every other band interviewed, Hafsteinn only agreed to be in this piece if his full name was not mentioned. One has to wonder why.
If Hafsteinn is the troubled artist, then Sturla Viðar, leader of veteran black metal band Svartidauði, is easily the rock star. “Some people will say it’s just artistic expression,” Sturla says with an easy confidence, laying out the foundations of his belief system, “but I don’t think you should be allowed to form a black metal band without having been in a fight or in trouble with the law.” We’re sitting on a couch in his dark apartment.
He hands me a beer and lights a cigarette. “Look, I’m not saying that you have to go out and sell heroin to kids or burn down a church or a school or whatever. Just practice what you preach!” Sturla is intense and opinionated, but he’s likable, and charming in that Charles Manson kind of way. He smiles. “Then we just end up with suburban white anthropologists and a bunch of scholarly articles on church burnings.” With a sip of his beer, he raises his eyebrows at me.
Loosely, black metal can be musically defined as an extreme type of metal characterised by shrieking vocals, fast tremolo riffs, high distortion, and low-production recording. But this description is vastly insufficient—there’s not only an aesthetic legacy to the music, but an infamous history inseparable from the genre itself. Read all
The boys of Auðn invite me to their practice space. Andri B, their guitarist and composer, proudly declares, “The most important thing in black metal is this ideology: Do whatever the fuck you want, and if you don’t like it, fuck you, I’m going to do it anyway.” Auðn are rarely invited to play with other Icelandic black metal bands. Without question, they are the outsiders of the already-outsider Icelandic black metal community. There’s an awkward silence when I ask why. They all look at each other, as if daring one another to say something that’s unspoken. Andri finally jokes, “I guess we’re not kvlt enough.”
Mannveira meet me at Bar 7 during happy hour, when beers are only 350 ISK. They’re young—newcomers, with only an EP and a few shows to their name. “We wear corpse paint,” Illugi K., their singer, tells me, “but we’re not into like crucifying people onstage.” At this, Axel F., their bassist, immediately pipes up, “Wait, can we do that?” They all start to argue, trying to top each other with more graphic and shocking ideas. I jokingly suggest they could start out by cutting themselves. Illugi plays along, “Nah, do you know how expensive razors are?”
“The aim is to be as all-encompassing as possible to achieve a feeling of utter disconnect from the mundane world.”
I speak with Sinmara at Studio Emissary, a primarily black metal recording studio run by their bassist, Stephen Lockheart. They had just gotten back from playing at a festival in New York City. “Black metal is different than a lot of other musical genres, and art in general,” guitarist Þórir G. emphasizes. He speaks softly, disaffected; it’s clear he takes this very seriously. “It needs a unified look and an enveloping feel. The aim is to be as all-encompassing as possible to achieve a feeling of utter disconnect from the mundane world.”
“In black metal, musicians have high standards.” Dagur G. of Misþyrming and Naðra tells me. “Not just the songs, but the lyrical content, the image, how the members choose to appear. It’s all related. You’d never see that in death metal.” Bandmate Tómas I. from Misþyrming and Naðra nods and interjects, “Yeah, you’d never see a death metal band rent out an art gallery and spray-paint the walls with blood and cover the ground with earth and rotting meat.” He’s referring to the Úlfsmessa performances—by now a staple at East Iceland metal festival Eistnaflug—where a group of Icelandic black metal bands have gotten together for the past two years and staged a Black Mass. We sit in Dagur’s room, the erstwhile headquarters of a black metal record label run by the pair, Vánagandr, which involves all of the abovementioned bands—save for Auðn. With clean-cut hair and a button-down, Dagur doesn’t seem like the kind of fellow who enjoys covering himself in sheep’s blood. But appearances can deceive. “There needs to be an atmosphere. There need to be theatrics,” Tómas says. Dagur nods before adding in something sarcastic, “Yeah, and death metal guys play in their normal clothes. We aim to do way more than that.”
Throughout the interview, Dagur continually does this. He jokes or says something sardonic, pauses, and then in an instant becomes severe and cold as he discusses the same topic. It’s a trait I’ve noticed in every black metal musician I’ve ever met, whether in Iceland, the US or elsewhere—and I’ve met a few. They laugh and joke about some of more audacious elements of the music—the corpse paint, the theatrics—but then instantly turn gravely stern as they emphasise the importance of these things. It reminds me of the response given to a reporter in 2003 by legendary Norwegian black metal stalwart Gaahl. “What’s your music about?” the interviewer asks. Gaahl swirls a glass of red wine. “Satan,” he responds coldly, after a long pause. His seriousness feels instinctively humorous, but you know he’s not really joking.
The makings of a scene
The general consensus around Iceland’s black metal history is mixed—some start by trying to figure out which old Icelandic groups influenced Iceland’s first “proper” black metal bands, others just start there. But when I ask about old Icelandic black metal, the majority begin by mentioning a band named Myrk, which started around 2000. Hafsteinn was a member. “[Myrk’s singer] was a really charismatic guy,” he tells me, “so what he listened to, everybody listened to. He was the black metal tastemaker back then.” During the early 2000s, the scene was small, overwhelmed by the massive death metal scene and later the hardcore scene, which was more in fashion at the time.
“I remember hearing all these horror stories,” Garðar J. of Sinmara says, raising his eyebrows, “like [the singer of Myrk] would go on stage and cut himself and get all fucked up. One time he had to go to the hospital.” Stephen looks puzzled. “That’s the guy who poured salt and pepper into his wounds onstage, right?” They then debate over whether or not this really happened. Other bands spout similar rumours—the salt, the blood—but no one can give a definitive answer. The myth of Myrk just grows and grows.
Sólstafír, which began in 1995, produced two demos in the late 90s that could solidly be defined as black metal. There was also a band named Potentiam, formerly named Thule, around this time. Their sound is really unique: black metal with a touch of late-90s gothic metal mixed it. “I remember listening to Potentiam a lot,” Örlygur S. from Naðra and Mannveira tells me, “but really Iceland had this scene where people would make one demo, or maybe one album, and then just break up. Nothing lasted.” Such was the fate for Myrk. Aside from that, people mention a few other names, but none carry the same loaded legacy. Dagur remembers Dysthymia; Sturla names Withered; Tómas credits Ámsvartnir. All of them are represented on a compilation released by former Sólstafir drummer Gummi called ‘Fire & Ice’. “You have got to find that,” Hafsteinn says seriously.
The black metal scene was pretty barren during these years in mid 2000s; bands maybe made a demo, but they rarely played live. Hafsteinn had left Myrk and was working on solo projects that would eventually become Wormlust.
This landscape didn’t change drastically until Svartidauði’s first release. Though they had been playing casually since 2002, Svartidauði only became serious around 2006, when they recorded their tape demo, ‘Temple of Deformation’, and started playing live. This was incidentally the first time the Grapevine profiled Sturla and the Icelandic black metal scene, in a piece entitled “Icelanders Don’t Care About Satan.” “We had really chaotic live shows back then. We used to drench ourselves in blood and just go completely crazy and beat people up,” Sturla smirks, “so we were never really stable.” He laughs, and emphasises the word stable. “We had like a revolving door policy when it came to the line-up. We kept kicking people out.” He tells me he’s fired members for being alcoholics or drug addicts, among other things. One got the slip for attempting to burn down a church.
Incidentally, Dagur’s first black metal show was Svartidauði. “I just took it by chance,” he tells me, “walking into the bar at age fifteen. Luckily, I didn’t get asked for ID.” Tómas smiles at this. “I remember this epidemic of metal kids sneaking into bars when there were concerts,” he says. “There was even this one night where somebody broke a monitor so a lot of bars banned metal shows.” He raises his eyebrows. “Well, they used that as an excuse, but I think it was because they had all these underage kids sneaking in, not to buy booze but to watch the show.”
Every member of every band interviewed talks about how inspired they were by Svartidauði. In 2010, they achieved what no one expected of an Icelandic black metal band—they played a show abroad, joining the Nidrosian Black Mass in Trondheim, Norway. Getting involved in the international community got them a record deal with Terratur Possessions, and they then released ‘Flesh Cathedral’ in 2012. “Bands that are active today, like Mannveira and Naðra,” Dagur relays, “were all in the idea stage at that point. The release of ‘Flesh Cathedral’ changed everything in the Icelandic black metal scene. Everybody realised it was possible to make a good black metal album in Iceland, even though it’s so isolated.”
The explosion of a scene
Today, it’s impossible to name all of the black metal projects currently going on in Iceland—that’s how many exist. Since the release of ‘Flesh Cathedral’, a whole new generation of black metal has emerged. “The scene is just really fucking lively,” Misþyrming’s Helgi R. tells me. “It’s like a golden age for us black metal-heads here.” The relics of this purported golden age are recent releases like Sinmara’s ‘Aphotic Womb’, Misþyrming’s ‘Söngvar elds og óreiðu’, Wormlust’s ‘The Feral Wisdom’, Naðra’s ‘Allir Vegir Til Glötunar’ and Auðn’s self-titled debut, which have all sold out and garnered almost unanimous praise from the most credible sources.
There’s been international media coverage and multiple European/US tours planned. Misþyrming in particular has been prolific. The band was named the Artist-In-Residence at the Roadburn festival this year, and their album the ninth best record of 2015 by Vice’s Noisey. They also recently received a Kraumur award and a Grapevine music award (fun fact: we made up a category just so we could award them with something).
But while the black metal community is tight-knit, there are still clashes. Some bands would only agree to be interviewed with the assurance that other bands weren’t going to be in this piece. Others refused to be photographed together. And every band shared some harsh opinions about others within the scene—off the record, of course.
-Hjalti S., Auðn
Auðn remain remarkably calm about such comments, when I bring them up. They seem happy in their role as the outsiders—proud to be nonconformists. “It’s been weird to experience the black metal community today to be very conformist to the set rules of black metal and very aggressive against outside influence,” Hjalti S., their singer, tells me. “It seems counterproductive.” It’s true that their sound is completely different from the Vánagandr bands: melodic instead of harsh, slow instead of furious—which many see as just cause for a rift. Even so, Auðn feel no animosity, laughing as they acknowledge how bizarre their situation is. “I mean, if you’re on the fringe of the black metal scene in Iceland,” Hjalti says, strongly emphasizing black metal and Iceland, “what does that leave you with?”
No group, though, was exempt from criticism. “A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon now. They’re just Svartidauði clones,” one musician tells me when I ask about some smaller black metal projects in Iceland. Even popular bands like Misþyrming and Svartidauði aren’t left out. “They are just mimicking that French black metal sound. It’s not original,” an unnamed black metaller says with a sigh. The French black metal sound refers to bands like Deathspell Omega, which have a rough dissonant style. He might have a point—Misþyrming and Svartidauði are all about dissonance. But Sturla scoffs when I mention this to him. “C’mon,” he tells me. “You do one discordant note and suddenly you are Deathspell Omega. Fuck that!” He puts down his beer and turns serious. “Great band though.” This comment feels like a “Hail Mary” after cursing—an attempt to appease the black metal gods after a harsh word.
To be fair, the comparison to Deathspell Omega is a bit of a stretch—Misþyrming and Svartidauði both have respectively unique sounds, and that’s what has gotten them where they are. Misþyrming—which literally means “abuse”—is unrelenting and wrathful. The band sucks you in so much that it is impossible to turn their album off once it gets going. Meanwhile, Svartidauði has a sophistication to their evilness. It’s polished—these guys really understand and appreciate the mechanics and nuances of black metal. Mannveira, then, is pure viral anger. The howls of their singer, Illugi, are despondent and haunting—you won’t be able to forget them. Sinmara has a gothic grandiosity and beauty to their tunes not normally found in Icelandic black metal. Their music is intricate and well-thought-out. If young and prolific Misþyrming is the Mozart of the scene, then Sinmara is most definitely Beethoven. Wormlust, though, is psychedelic—black metal you’d want to trip to. I imagine ‘The Feral Wisdom’, his last album, would be the soundtrack to that fabled acid ego death. As I sit with Hafsteinn in the church, he tells me about how he started a project once based on near-death experiences, inspired by one he had himself. I can’t help but hear these musings in his music.
“There’s a lot of diversity.” Dagur says, yet Tómas looks less than convinced. “Yeah, there’s a lot of diversity in sound, but if you look at the line-ups…” He trails off. Indeed, every band notes that the scene is relatively inbred—understandable considering Iceland’s small population. Most point to Tómas as a prime culprit: in addition to owning Vánagandr, Tómas himself plays in Naðra, Misþyrming, Carpe Noctem, 0, Grafir, and Nornahetta. He then starts naming inactive bands, or ones without studio releases and literally loses count. Even Auðn—a band that Tómas is not associated with—jokes about his prolific attendance. Andri smirks, “It’s like who’s playing guitar? Tómas? Who’s playing drums? Tómas? I thought he was on bass.” Aðalsteinn M., another member of Auðn, grins. “So if you don’t like each other, you can’t kill each other like the Norwegians, ‘cause then we are all lacking a drummer, you know?” Andri mocks fury in response, “You killed the only black metal drummer in Iceland!”
The understanding of a scene
But why black metal? What is appealing about this harsh and—to most people—ugly music? Why dedicate years of your life to a scene that glorifies Satan and suicide?
At first, every band loves getting into the nitty-gritty of why they love the genre. They get nostalgic—reminiscing about lending each other CDs in their preteen years, discovering Mayhem or Burzum, growing enamoured, and ultimately obsessed, with the genre’s legends. But when I start to ask each band deeper questions about their psyches and themselves, most brush me off with sarcasm or a joke. There is a wall.
But, then, one does let me in. It’s Tómas. “I think that if you go against the prominent values of society long enough,” he tells me, “then black metal is likely to appeal to you somewhere along the way.” At this, his bandmate Örlygur nods. “Iceland is really rotten,” he says seriously. “It’s not the magical-fairy-elf-land that people want it to be. Both in terms of corruption and urban decay. Just look at the streets, they’re ruined.”
They start to tell me about the horror of working in slaughterhouses or the monotony of working in fish factories. “I had to do it all,” Örlygur continues. “Shoot it, hang it up, rip the wool and the whole skin off, empty the guts out. Nasty shit. It’s backbreaking.” Being so close to death will make anyone obsessed with it, it seems. “Everything is futile when you look at it from far away enough. Nothing is of any consequence,” he says seriously.
Futility is a word that continually comes up, as is defeat. “Defeat is the key concept here in Mannveira,” Illugi tells me. The name literally translates to “Human Virus.” I ask him to explain that to me, but he answers with a joke. “I mean, go to downtown Reykjavík at 6am and the name will make perfect sense!” There’s the wall. A short silence follows. Finally, drummer Jón Arnar steps up. “Look, the human being on Earth is not doing anything good. It is a virus.” Axel, their bassist, nods, then adds, “We are just a cosmic accident.”
“Iceland is dark, depressing, and cold.” Hjalti from Auðn tells me, when I ask what it is that created this scene. Auðn means “Desolation.” “Desolation is both a horrible place and a place that draws you in,” Hjalti tells me. Illugi says something similar: “We live in a small, isolated, cold, place. No one speaks our language. You have to find something to make meaning of it all.” But make meaning of what? Life? Death? I ask Hafsteinn. “I avoid death-worship or outright death-worship,” he says, “but black metal always reminds you—memento mori—it screams it.”
Every band, at some point, mentions the financial crash. Of course, all of them were fans of black metal before the upheaval, but it’s impossible to emphasize how much this event affected everyone, taking these nihilists and making them even more pessimistic. “Would it be better for tourism and the Grapevine if we said yeah, the scene is inspired by nature and the power of the geysers?” Mannveira’s Jón Arnar asks with a smirk. Everyone laughs. “And the elves!” Axel adds. Tómas is more serious: “Iceland never knew true poverty before the crash.” He tells me about how families were homeless, how lives were ruined, and how the bankers were barely even punished. If any event has coloured, or perhaps finalised these boys’ perception of their own society, this is it.
“Look, I think some people either get black metal or they don’t.” Stephen tells me. “It’s not something that you can prescribe to somebody. It just kind of clicks, and you either feel it or you don’t.” Þórir nods at this. “With the risk of sounding like an exclusionist asshole,” he says, “it is to a point something which picks you, and not the other way around.” Garðar laughs. “You’re right, but this is black metal,” he smiles. “We’re supposed to be exclusionist assholes.”
The future of a scene
Sinmara are currently recording a new album. “I think it’s just going to get stronger,” Stephen tells me, discussing the future of the Icelandic scene. “People keep wanting to do more and they keep making good music. In terms of public perception though, I don’t know.” He pauses and narrows his eyes, as if he doesn’t know how best to approach this issue.
“Black metal fans get into fads,” he says, “and when something is not cool anymore, they don’t just move on from it—they hate it.” Any notoriety is like a double-edged sword. “You can already find backlash online,” he adds with a laugh. “People are like ‘I am so sick of Sinmara already!’ C’mon, we just released our album last year!” Þórir rolls his eyes. “‘They’ve got a thousand fans!’” “‘Yeah! They’ve played to more than six people!’” Stephen responds. “‘They are fucking sell-outs.’”
No one can hold their laughter in—these statements feel a little too lifelike. Garðar shrugs. “Well, we didn’t start this to get popular,” he says with a smile, “so it’s not going to stop the madness.”
Meanwhile, Hafsteinn just finished his long-awaited new album ‘Hallucinogenesis’. “Wormlust has changed from being this cathartic weekend diary,” he tells me, “to something more like a long-form novel.” He doesn’t want to make any predictions about the scene. “Time is fleeting, of course,” he says, looking down.
Mannveira just finished a new album, which should be released soon, and Auðn is looking for producers and studios to record their next album. Both bands hope to soon play outside of Iceland.
Sturla is, fittingly, more pessimistic about the future of Icelandic black metal. “It’ll fade into obscurity as soon as the next big thing happens,” he says with a smirk. As with most things he says, it’s hard to tell just how sarcastic he’s is.
When I ask Dagur and Tómas for predictions, they both shrug. Dagur is writing new material for Misþyrming. Tómas hopes that they can begin to release vinyl on Vánagandr. Naðra just released a new album, and there are a few new Vánagandr releases coming out soon. Tómas finally gives me a small smile. “I guess we’re just going for world domination.”
Meet The Legion
Get some grandiosity from Sinmara and some raw anger from Mannveira. Pick your poison. Read all