Since kicking off a decade ago, the Eistnaflug festival has slowly cemented its place as the most beloved, most important phenomenon in the world of Icelandic metal. And it all started as a hobby project, a way to pass the time and have some fun.
In the winter of 2005, headbanging gym teacher Stefán “Stebbi” Magnússon and his wife and co-conspirator, Campari-swigging nurse Hrefna Húgósdóttir, relocated to the beautiful backwater town of Neskaupstaður (pop. 1,150), a tiny fishing hamlet perched on the shores of stunning Norðfjörður on the eastern edge of Iceland, more than 700 kilometres removed from bustling Reykjavík.
“It’s pretty funny how it all came about”, Stebbi tells me. “We were looking for a town that needed both a nurse and gym teacher. After considering several options, we wound up in Neskaupstaður.”
Prior to the move, Stebbi had been an avid Reykjavík scenester, eagerly attending shows and playing in bands. Perhaps missing that aspect of city living, he on a whim convinced a small cast of his favourite Icelandic metal and hardcore acts to come play a show in Neskaupstaður that summer. That first edition was funded in part by a local cultural grant, which went towards paying for the musicians’ cross-country bus ride.
“Our goal in those first years was just to throw a party and bring metal music to an area sorely deprived of it,” Stebbi tells me, speaking of the motives that drive him. “Later our motivation turned towards trying to make some sort of living from this, and perhaps to try and compete on the international metal festival market. But that was far from anyone’s mind in the beginning.”
Eistnaflug 2005 took place in front of handful of dedicated metalheads at the Egilsbúð community centre in downtown Neskaupstaður. The gig was a major success, in the sense that everyone who made it had a great time and wowed to return next year. The seeds were sown.
Since the beginning, Eistnaflug has primarily been a labour of love, run on a bottomless tank of goodwill and charity, with all involved continuously volunteering work, equipment, and services (in its first years, performers would get paid in beer, gas money and accommodation).
Still, it grew at the pace of a Pig Destroyer track, and the fourth edition saw the first international act, Germany’s Contradiction, take stage alongside festival mainstays like Sólstafir, Momentum, Innvortis, Changer and Denver. “They had heard about the our festival somewhere and got in touch with us directly, asking if they could come play. Which, of course they were welcome to do,” Stebbi recalls. Thus a crucial step towards today’s blastravaganza was taken.
The festival’s next milestone was in 2010, when the festival booked legendary UK grind ensemble Napalm Death, who performed a “brutal” set, as Grapevine music writer Bob Cluness puts it, and lent the bash an aura of authenticity internationally through their stature and reputation.
Through its rapid growth, Eistnaflug experienced some setbacks. The 2011 edition saw revenues fall and the number visitors dwindle noticeably, to the point where less than 800 tickets were sold (compared with over 1,200 in 2010). The main culprit was thought to be the concurrent outdoor festival Besta útihátíðin festival, scheduled on the same weekend in a more accessible location, with a line-up consisting of acts such as Agent Fresco, The Vintage Caravan and Legend that poached some of the fairweather demographic.
“The attendance drop that we experienced in 2011 was really hard on us,” Stebbi recalls. “The accident that happened in 2010 [a young festivalgoer fell to her death from the top of a seaside cliff] was just horrible—those two years really took their toll.”
The 2012 edition, however, saw a solid return to form, in part due to a comeback show by lauded hardcore scene legends I Adapt. The bill was further enhanced by a gravity-defying performance from post-metal mavens Celestine, and Rocky Mountain hydro-grind outfit Cephalic Carnage ripping through a THC-fuelled set that dwarfed every Eistnaflug performance before or since. Recalling his band’s time at Eistnaflug, Cephalic Carnage’s Steve Goldberg chimes in via Facebook from his Rocky Mountainside meadow smoke hut: “It took us forever to finally play in Iceland, and Eistnaflug was definitely worth the wait. The festival was packed, filled with the best in Icelandic metal, and the best fans in the world. It was an honour to play, and hang out with all the great people. This year’s line up looks insane, I wish I could come out just for the party!”
Assembling a great festival bill is both an art and a science. In 2010, Guðný Lára Thorarensen, respected Reykjavík promoter and concert photographer, assumed a role as the festival’s booker, steering it towards further glories. “Guðný did really good things for the festival, a fact that can’t be emphasized enough. She took us to previously unachieved heights,” Stefán says.
From a sumptuous balcony atop the CCP headquarters on the docks of downtown Reykjavík, where she’s now employed, Guðný tells me her insights as we marvel at the beauty of Mt. Esja in the breeze of a sunny early June day: “Getting Napalm Death was a great validation for Eistnaflug as a festival. They are a big band, having played all sorts of concerts and festivals over the years, so scoring a thumbs up from them was important.”
“Eistnaflug has definitely changed the metal scene in Iceland,” she adds, “bands are becoming more ambitious. They really want to play the festival, and in order to do so they have to prove
that they’re serious about recording and touring, and not just occasionally rehearsing in a garage. But, then, that’s also part of what makes the scene what it is. Because of the weather here during the winter, you’ve got nothing to do other than practice with your band.”
The scene politics involved can be akin to sailing round Cape Horn in a dingy. Current booker, Gísli Sigmundsson of Icelandic death metal pioneers Sororicide (currently playing with Beneath) tells us his approach through a crinkled Skype connection from his home in southern Sweden:
“Our current mission is never to book the same band for two consecutive years,” Gísli says, before elaborating on Guðný’s point about only featuring local acts that are very active and have recent or upcoming releases to their name. However, a glance at the 2015 line-up reveals that this is perhaps more of a general guideline than stringently enforced rule. Despite all intentions, gut feeling still seems to play the biggest part in Eistnaflug’s booking decisions.
Breaking international ground
For the 2010 edition, the festival had been advised to invite and host journalists and photographers from prominent European metal publications to raise its international profile and document the event for posterity. The majority of the journalists that that came in 2010 maintain close ties to the festival, many showing up year after year to continue spreading its gospel.
Indeed, Eistnaflug now has a bevy of friends and well-wishers that go out of their way to further its cause. Gunnar Sauermann, promoter for leading French independent metal label Season of Mist and long time Eistnaflug devotee says: “Whenever possible, I try to return the giant favours bestowed upon me by the people behind the scenes—by pulling a string here and there, giving advice when asked, and contributing to the event.”
Terrorizer Magazine stalwart José Carlos Santos remembers his first visit with a grin on his chin: “A tiny, quaint little town on a remote fjord in the East end of Iceland, with 24 hours daylight, all the Tuborg we can handle, and enthusiastic hordes of smiling, peaceful Icelandic drunks. Do we even need bands? Actually, we did, and we didn’t even know it before we were blown away by most of them.”
Another Terrorizer writer, Olivier Zoltar Badin, concurs: “The fact that few years later some of those people I met and bonded with there are still very good friends of mine—and that I still value Eistnaflug as being one of those rare one-of-a-kind festival in a one-of-a-kind place—speaks volume about what I found there. And believe me, I’ve been to many festivals. But this one is unique, truly.”
As these players in the international world of metal educate their combined readership about both the wonders of the festival and the prowess of the local artists, bands such as Sólstafir, Skálmöld and Angist make an ever increasing amount of landfalls on foreign shores, where they ravage faraway lands like the Vikings of yore, while acting as goodwill ambassadors for the festival that originally supplied them with the cloth for their sails.
“Sólstafir, for instance, have been doing this since the beginning of Eistnaflug,” Stebbi offers,” going around and telling folks it’s the most fun show of the year. They’ve sort of acted as our ambassadors abroad.”
Chowing down on a greasy burger at American Style, Momentum frontman Hörður Ólafsson echoes a similar sentiment: “The addition of international metal journalists and industry insiders with deep ties and a wide reach has been instrumental in both the continuous growth of the festival and the international success of local bands. Many of these people have formed strong relationships with key people in the Icelandic scene—were it not for Gunnar [Sauermann], for instance, many of the important deals and bookings local metal bands have made in the last few years simply wouldn’t have happened. He has a knack for making the right connections wherever he goes. Without him, I imagine both the festival and our scene would be far less advanced.”
Big things are afoot for Eistnaflug 2015. With a record smashing eleven international acts—up from a mere four last year—ranging from obscure Danish post-metal crushers LLNN, to Polish extreme metal behemoths Behemoth, 2015 is sure to fuck your face off with extreme prejudice. Local face-fuckers of note include imminent international breakout act Kontinuum, perennial death metal rippers Severed, and gentle comeback kids Lights on the Highway.
Changes are, however, inevitable, and as the festival expands beyond the limits of the local infrastructure—manifest mainly in a lack of guest and artist accommodations and the relatively small size of the local venues—the question arises; is it still feasible to arrange such a massive happening in a small, distant town like Neskaupstaður? And, perhaps, more pressing, could the festival continue to thrive at a different venue in a less scenic location, deprived of the metal scene lore attached to the current one?
Pondering this conundrum, Gunnar Sauermann offers the following: “It’s obvious from this year’s billing that the makers of this metal party are trying to expand the fun by carefully growing a little and featuring bigger names from abroad. Such ambitions will probably be much welcomed by the local island scene, while securing more international media exposure, but the growth will be naturally limited by Neskaupstaður’s accommodation situation. Therefore it is quite likely that the next three years will see more foreign bands and guests—however, the great and unique spirit of this festival should remain intact.”
What’s An Eistnaflug?
Eistnaflug is the leading and longest running metal festival in Iceland. The annual indoor event traditionally occurs over second weekend of July—its eleventh edition kicks off on July 8 and will feature the biggest line-up ever, with Icelandic rock and metal’s best and brightest taking the stage alongside a whopping eleven international acts (a record number of imports).
This year also marks the inauguration of a new and much larger main venue to fit all the punters and bands, with the festival’s previous main site now hosting its official off-venue programme.
A product of promoter Stefán “Stebbi Hressi” Magnússon’s hyperactive disorder, the festival was sparked by his creative vision of injecting some much needed vitality into the cultural sphere of his then-hometown of Neskaupstaður, where he found himself teaching elementary school phys ed in the early naughts.
Eistnaflug has grown to be an important event in many respects; for the region, for the Icelandic metal and hardcore scenes, and, increasingly, as part of the international metal festival spectrum.
For Neskaupstaður, it has both cultural and economic benefits. As a domestic—and increasingly international—tourist attraction, its draw, and fiscal turnaround dwarfs every other regional event. It also serves to lend its location sense of identity and purpose.
For the Icelandic metal scene, it provides a yearly high tide, a sense of belonging, and a means for bands to promote themselves both domestically and internationally. By now, securing a spot at Eistnaflug is considered a major milestone in an up-and-coming Icelandic metal band’s career.
Originally a destination for the hardest core of the Icelandic metal scene, Eistnaflug’s demographic has expanded exponentially over past last few years. While still attracting that same core audience, Eistnaflug attendees now come in all shapes and sizes, including internet metal nerds, curious tourists, locals from surrounding fjords, mainstream metal fans and road trip-hungry hipsters lured by the addition of non-metal acts to the line-up.
The Local Perspective
Neskaupstaður’s Hildibrand Hotel head honcho Hákon Guðröðarson, Eistnaflug collaborator par excellence, elaborates on the festival’s value for Neskaupstaður at length in an email:
“Eistnaflug has a great and positive effect, and attracts an increasing number of visitors every year. The festival weekend boasts the largest annual weekend revenue by far for the area, probably in the range of over a hundred million ISK or so. The locals are by and large very positive towards the festival, as the guests tend to be quite sociable, however intimidating their outward appearances might be.”
Stebbi elaborates on this point: “When we first did the festival, the people of Neskaupstaður were really surprised when this huge crowd that looked like it had been shat out by Satan himself turned out so friendly and polite. But that’s metalheads for you, they get out their aggression elsewhere than with violence.”
Continues Hákon: “Residents try to pitch in wherever they can and habitually offer rides to the camp site to festival guests. The guests are a unique breed—polite to a fault, and personable to boot. There is a lot of love in the air during the festival, like what you would imagine Woodstock might have been like.
There are never any incidents like rapes or assaults due to this unique mood that permeates the festival, which is all Stebbi’s doing. He always maintains the same motto—‘DON´T BE A DICK!’—and people just do as he bids.”
You may also be interested in checking out the full lineup, or reading the following article:
Eistnaflug: The Grapevine Picks
Writers Bogi Bjarnason and Hannah Jane Cohen tell what bands you absolutely can’t miss this year.