Back in 2012 I moved to Oslo not knowing much more of Norway than pictures of pristine fjords and the decrepit recordings of a handful of Norwegian outcasts from the early 90s, known as the second wave of black metal. There were murders, there was arson. Combined with lyrics evoking pagan gods, satan or mankind’s worst tendancies the music and bands of this era casts a long shadow over metal to this day and Inferno festival evokes images of burning churches in its very name, one suspects not accidentally.
Words & photos by Nick Hagger
Front row first night and the girl to my right gets kicked in the face. She goes down, and seconds later a mic stand hits my eye, and the photographer on my left has to grasp mid-air as his camera takes a swipe threatening to send it flying across the room. Violence, recklessness, and a disregard for the audience or anyone are all stereotypes metal has long been burdened with: as an outsider, fear and contempt for the whole scene are not uncommon.
Seconds after the incident the other band members are already looking uncomfortable. Against a sea of stern warning stares from the audience, the singer retreats, reconsiders his aggression and channels it into some occult style hand waving instead. A few songs later and he’s gone, and his memory isn’t enough to sour the remainder of Svartidauði’s set, a brutal and mystifying assault, celebral rather that physically violent, unlike the almost forgotten interloper. They cap off a night curated by Trondheim record label Terratur Possesions, featuring a trio of Icelandic bands: much vaunted newcomers Misþyrming, Sinmara sculpting melody out of chaos, and Svartidauði with their mystical (almost psychedelically so) yet agressive black metal.
The rest of the festival was altogether a more main-stage affair, with big names and Norwegian heros taking pride of place on the stage at Rockerfeller. Kicking things off on the Thursday were Execration, fresh from their Spellemannprisen award for best metal album for Morbid Dimensions, and they pulled a sizeable crowd for an early set, all eager to witness the impressive death metal and equally impressive faces pulled during particularly intense guitar sections, of which there were many.
Greece’s Septicflesh followed with some rather dreary symphonic black metal, which I nearly didn’t even notice beyond the sight of their singer clad in some sort of all-in-one rubber body suit molded into the shape of ribbed muscles, gesticulating in front of 2 metre tall canvases of medieval woodcuts.
Not to be out-camped by the visitors, Norway’s 1349 were next on stage accompanied by a token monk, and a Micheal Bay movie worth of special effects. 1349 manage to combine a sound faithfully extended from Norway’s 90s black metal heyday with a pantomime theatricality, though on some level, the fire balls and the billowing smoke did evoke some sensation of the underworld.
Meanwhile across the road in the more genteel setting of Kulturhuset, metal outsiders Virus were playing to a smaller crowd, and totally unaided by fireworks. Curiously set in front of curtains pasted together from a fashion magazine, their shifting energetic music straddles the line between metal and rock, howling abstract and arcane lyrics which both confuse and delight.
On day two of the festival-proper, things don’t really get going until Dødsengel take to the stage. More monks robes, and ancient Egyptian aprons, and a whole heap of atmosphere, Dødsengel specialise in a particularly intense brand of universe-encompassing black metal. Raw and orthodox, the malevolent intensity belied by the stoic figures on stage, the music makes sense as a totally inward destructive force, biding its time until it’s unleashed.
A band unconcerned with such an internal life or subtle performance are My Dying Bride who filled time between Dødsengel and, well, something else, anything else… For all the ridiculous bombast that previous bands have brought, these guys and their po-faced ham-fisted scenery chewing is one of the silliest sights all weekend.
Bored of such nonsense I took a wander around the festival site. Encompassed entirely within the Rockefeller/John Dee complex, this isn’t Glastonbury or Lollapalooza, but the organisers valiantly invited some other diversions or entertainments to fill the time spent avoiding naff bands, or the unexpectedly idle time you acquire when John Dee fills up 20 minutes before the next band play and it’s one-in-one-out and let’s face it you’re not getting in. Strangely thin on the ground were shopping options, considering this is a music festival hosting many bands each with records they want to sell so they can afford food, but my bank balance is probably grateful for that. Instead we were treated to a stall about Viking life, a stall about animal rights, and several stalls trying to drum up support for other metal festivals. Slightly more surprising was the whole room taken up by visiting tattoo artists from all over the world, and the people sitting for hours to get tattooed, presumably listening to the muffled music through the walls, music from the music festival they had payed lots of money to attend.
But there is only so much you can stand watch strangers get tattooed before they start asking questions like “who are you?” and “can you please leave?”, so I returned to the main arena for one of the biggest names of the weekend, Enslaved, Norwegian legends who rode out the 90s and ended the decade with the classic album Mardraum: Beyond the Within, a progressive visionary masterpiece that eschewed the orthodoxy and clichés of many of their contemporaries. Ivar Bjornson was just 13 when the band was formed in 1991 and they have released records nearly every year since, and whilst the intervening 15 years haven’t seen a return to the form of Mardraum era, they remain a technically impressive band who infuse more ideas into their music than most other artists of the same stature. On stage Ivar is affable and relaxed as he sips the cognac held in a special cradle attached to his mic stand. Playing a safe but successful set, you wouldn’t know the crowd enjoyed themselves until they applauded the departing band, so solemn and statue-still they were for the duration, one wonders if those tales of extremity and debauchery in metal could be really true.
On the last day the crowd looked tired, and a less essential line-up had been gifted to those who could not muster their previous levels of (all but invisible) enthusiasm. Essential for me though were Dødheimsgard, another group of 90s survivors, but who never graduated to the main stage. In John Dee’s cramped hall they remain entrancing with a more industrial black metal they have evolved towards. Energetic and seemingly more enthused to perform than any other band over the whole weekend, their presence and performance show that the metal of those heady days of the early 90s isn’t gone, nor should it be banished, it’s torch just needs bearing by the right people.