As I woke up this morning and it hit me that the final edition of Oration Festival was over, I experienced a wave of sadness, coupled with regrets over not having made the trek for the first two years of the event. Oration Fest MMXVIII was, by my lights, an extraordinary experience, one formed by the combination of its setting in Reykjavik (a magical place), the wonderful friends, both old and new, with whom I was able to share the experience, and of course the incredible music.
I’ll have some more perhaps excessively emotional things to say about all that at the end of this post, but the first order of business is to provide photos, videos, and accompanying personal reactions concerning the performances last night by these bands, who appeared in this order: Almyrkvi (Iceland), Inferno (Czech Republic), Misþyrming (Iceland), Svartidauði (Iceland), Vemod (Norway), and Rebirth of Nefast (Ireland/Iceland).
Once again, the high-quality photos you’ll find below were made by my Seattle friend Tanner Ellison; I made the rest of them, and the (sadly mediocre) videos, with my phone.
While the first two nights of the festival (reviewed here and here) took place at the Húrra bar, there was a change of venue for the final night to a hall in Listasafn Reykjavíkur — which is a Reykjavik art museum.
I believe the change was required because Húrra was unavailable on the third night — and Húrra could not be booked earlier because the event had originally been planned at Gamla Bíó; those plans fell through due to issues that surfaced with that venue which were beyond Oration Fest’s control.
The hall at Listasafn Reykjavíkur had pluses and minuses compared to Húrra. On the plus side, it is a beautiful, spacious setting, many times larger than the music room at Húrra, with ceilings that arched 30-40 feet above us, dressed all in white save for the black banners of death that fell from the vault near the entrance to the hall. As a result, it was impossible to experience the claustrophobia that can be a risk at tightly packed clubs like Húrra.
In addition, because the stage was well above the floor, there really wasn’t any place in the hall where you couldn’t get a good view of the performances. And the combination of multiple burning candelabras and blazing stage lights created a lot of dramatic visual memories.
On the minus side, all those wide-open spaces weren’t ideal for the acoustics; I assume the hall wasn’t originally designed for music performances, and that may have had something to do with it. Near the end of the night I figured out that the sweet spot (or at least a sweeter spot) was probably dead-center on the floor about 40-50 feet back from the stage, though of course that’s not where I was until the final half hour of the evening. Instead, I picked my usual place near the right corner of the stage so I could take some photos and make some videos as unobtrusively as possible, though the sound was muddier there.
Another negative was the room temperature. It had the feeling of a meat locker, and because the size of the hall was far larger than the crowd, body heat didn’t create as much of a warming effect as it usually does at a metal show. (I would mention the design of the men’s restroom as another negative, or at least an oddity, although if you enjoy admiring your own dick or the dicks of proximate strangers, I guess it was just about a perfect showcase for that.)
Unlike the last two nights, my friends and I arrived before the first band started — because I damned sure wasn’t going to risk missing Almyrkvi. Their 2017 debut album, Umbra, which we premiered and reviewed, blew me away.
My comrade Andy described Umbra in that review as “dark and desolate”, “bathed in layers of deep shadow and glistening frost, and shot through with icy veins of piercing melody, as if [the band] seek to capture the very essence of that boundless, endless emptiness which exists just beyond the edges of this fragile, lonely world.” Those descriptions would also have held for Almyrkvi’s performance last night, but these were the notes I made to myself after being mesmerized by what I’d heard and seen:
“Almyrkvi were spellbinding. Like some drug-induced spirit dance and dreamwalk, filling the mind with black metal incense and rivulets of blood, and inducing compulsive movement. A form of possession. Wonderful.”
And yes it did strike me in those moments like something I imagine out of an ayahuasca-assisted ritual, with psychoactive properties and involuntary rhythmic shaking of the body mixed with electricity moving through the blood stream. Almyrkvi’s alter ego Garðar S. Jónsson, who only handled the vocals last night (aided by a fantastic group of musicians from other Icelandic bands) completely threw himself into the performance, and witnessing that only further intensified an already riveting performance.
Inferno from the Czech Republic were one of the bands at Oration whom I was particularly interested in seeing. In a career that now spans more than 20 years, they have recorded prolifically, and yet there seems to be no end to their vaulting creativity. Even after more than two decades, they produced an album last year — Gnosis Kardias (Of Transcension and Involution) — that I thought was a searing, soaring, transcendent experience, and one of the most important releases of 2017.
I was lucky to be able to premiere a song from the album here at NCS. That song in particular was exotic, esoteric, earthy, and unearthly all at once, a melding of electrifying tumult and gleaming grandeur, like the rising of a great beast clothed in a raiment of light. And the same held true of their performance at Oration — but I also found it enormously unnerving and creepy.
That was at least in part due to the appearance of the vocalist Adramelech, his hooded face a ghastly, gaping, and vampiric countenance, the movements of his body unnatural. And the notes I made to myself after listening were these: “Head-moving, brain-fogging, blood-freezing black metal horror”.
I made a video, and apologize for the fact that given my ignorance about how to increase the exposure on my phone, the visuals are basically just a black screen — but you can get a sense of the what I’ve tried to describe about the sound.
Misþyrming were yet another group who were very high on my mental list of bands I was eager to see. I expected the music to light up my head and rocket it away into the rafters, like a Roman candle, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the intense visceral power of what I heard live, and the explosive nature of their stage presence. It was breathtaking.
All the musicians were clad in what might once have been white dress shirts, but were now streaked in soot and blood, ready to show us the wars they’d been through. They all seemed on fire, but frontman D.G. was especially riveting to watch — like a human canister of nitroglycerin going off in a non-stop sequence of detonations.
And the band’s marvelously multifaceted music was just as adrenalizing and dynamic as I expected it would be. They seem to be riding the forward wave of metal, bringing together so much of what’s happening now that is most emotionally involving in extreme music. An extraordinary set.
Svartidauði has become at least as well-known on a global scale as Sinmara and the band who preceded them last night — perhaps even more so — but their music dwells over on the more terrifying end of the Icelandic black metal spectrum. Not for nothing is their name a conjunction of the Icelandic words for “black death”.
These are mind-benders and bone-manglers, their twisted, dissonant leads and flensing riffs disorienting the brain, and their tumultuous, ever-changing drum rhythms and progressions shaking the spine. The music’s relentless intensity is a result not only of the ferocious, mercurial, and otherworldly machinations of the music but also the harrowing terrors of the vocalist.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone break a bass string on stage before, but I think that’s what the vocalist/bassist did at one point, so violent was the force of his assault.
I believe it was the 2016 year-end list for our site by Panopticon’s Austin Lunn that caused me to search out the music of Norway’s Vemod. He commented about the vinyl reissue of their 2012 debut album Venter på stormene: “Amazing to finally have this on vinyl. Such an entrancing album. This band is a spectacle to behold live and on record. Perfect.”
I would say the production on that album is less than perfect (perhaps intentionally so), but the music itself is nonetheless completely distinctive and enthralling. Yet to hear the music performed live, that still took it to another level for me. Such bleak and often beautiful atmospheric sounds, drawing from such a wide range of influences… with an effective mix of staggering roars, chants, and ghostly wails… and changing dynamics between gale-force assaults of sound and hypnotic melancholy… it all proved to be thoroughly immersive and transporting.
I haven’t paid enough attention to know what the explanation might be for so many years to have passed without a follow-up to Venter på stormene, but I’m now forcefully reminded of Vemod’s talents and fervently hoping for something more, and soon.
It was completely fitting that these amazing three nights of music would come to an end with a towering performance by Rebirth of Nefast, not only because it has been the solo project of Stephen Lockhart (among other bands in which he has been involved, including Slidhr), who has been a key moving force in making Oration Festival happen (and documenting it) for three years, but also because the set was simply stupendous.
If you haven’t heard Rebirth of Nefast’s debut album, Tabernaculum (2017), put that on your to-do list — above “eat something” and “sleep”. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that you will get to hear a live performance if you weren’t at this one, because I’m told the band will no longer perform live. If this was indeed the final performance, it was certainly one to be remembered for a very long time. I don’t know which Icelandic musicians accompanied Lockhart, since all I could see were hooded, but they accounted themselves superbly.
After the set ended, my friend Max from Denmark came up to me with an enormous look of surprise and joy on his face, and exclaimed, “Amazing! In its own way, that was beautiful! Almost like metal chamber music!” And I could understand his point… something about the music, and in particular the way in which the set ended, carried an immense grandeur, as if reaching for and capturing something larger in its meaning than our own meager lives.
I made two videos. One relatively brief one from the side of the stage, and a much longer excerpt from that place I mentioned earlier, dead center but about 40-50 feet back from the stage near the rear of the giant hall. That one is my amateur effort to capture the last 16 minutes of the last Oration Fest.
I do wish all the videos I made could have been better. I hope better ones will surface, and in any event we will have the Oration/Studio Emissary professional recording of the entire fest to look forward to at some future time. It will be well worth buying.
And now for a few closing words of thanks.
First, tremendous thanks are due to Oration and to Studio Emissary for making this festival happen. It was and will be unforgettable.
Second, thanks to all of the bands. I missed all or most of only three performances over three days, and of the ones I did witness, I really enjoyed every one of them. I had some personal favorites to be sure, but there were no let-downs at all. Special thanks are owed to the Icelandic musicians who did double-, triple-, or perhaps even quadruple-duty, practicing and performing songs as members of multiple bands across these three days.
Finally, I’m also grateful to all the friends I was able to share this experience with, both old ones and new ones. At most festivals I’ve attended, I usually make it to only about half the sets because I have so much fun talking (and talking and talking) with people. This time I was so interested in seeing every band that I did less of that during the shows than usual, but still felt lucky to have met so many people, both fellow fans and musicians whom I’d previously known only over the internet.
And I did manage to pack in a solid amount of socializing before each show at a daily pre-fest get-together with the Seattle crew, our old friend Max, and our new friends Knut, Elijah, Elena, and Rachel. For me, half the fun of events like this has been, and remains, encounters with such good people.