Ascension MMXIX will take place on June 13 – 15, 2019, in Mosfellbær, Iceland, about a 20-minute drive or half-hour bus ride from the city center in Reykjavik. Over those three days 30 bands from a dozen countries will perform at the Hlégarður venue. The impressive line-up includes not only Sólstafir and the best-known names from the vanguard of red-hot Icelandic black metal but also such U.S. bands as Akhlys, Drab Majesty, and King Dude; Antaeus and The Order of Apollyon from France; Auroch and Mitocondrion from Canada; Mgła from Poland; Sweden’s Tribulation; Akrotheism from Greece; Jupiterian from Brazil; and the Belgian band Wolvennest.
Ascension is the spiritual successor to the widely acclaimed Oration Festival, which ran for three years (from 2016 through 2018) in Reykjavik. Like Oration, Ascension is the brainchild of Stephen Lockhart, who is the owner/operator of both the Icelandic record label Oration and of Studio Emissary, where Lockhart has been responsible for recording, mixing, and mastering an extensive list of great metal releases since the studio’s founding in 2010. The bands with whom Lockhart has worked through the studio have formed the nucleus of both Oration and now Ascension, but the appeal of the festivals to performing bands obviously extends much further.
In addition to his recording and label activities, Lockhart is a creative musical force himself, as the man behind Rebirth of Nefast and a performer with such other groups as Sinmara, Slidhr, and Wormlust.
I was fortunate to be present for the last edition of Oration fest in 2018, and an early purchaser of a pass to the debut edition of Ascension festival (tickets are still available HERE and more details about the event can be found at the fest’s Facebook page). As Ascension draws ever closer, I reached out to Stephen Lockhart with a series of questions about the festival, including what led him to embark on Ascension after announcing that Oration would end with the 2018 event and how the two events will differ, and he was kind enough to answer them. At the end of the interview you’ll find a full list of the bands confirmed to perform at Ascension.
Now, here’s the interview:
I was a late-comer to Oration Fest, attending only the last installment in 2018, which was also my first visit to Iceland. With no exaggeration, I found the entire experience magical and would have been tremendously eager to return. After such a wonderful event, and an equally wondrous time exploring Reykjavik and the landscapes beyond the city, I was really saddened by the news that it would be the final edition of Oration Fest — and then buoyed by the initial announcement of Ascension last October. What happened to revive your interest in putting on a metal festival after bringing Oration to a close?
I wouldn’t say anything really ‘happened’, in the sense that there was not any one element or event that changed my mind – it was a vast array of things. When the decision to put an end to the Oration Festival was made 18 or so months ago, circumstances were different. I’d anticipated the coming years would make it impossible to continue, judging by my commitments and responsibilities at the time. At it happens, these commitments and responsibilities took their toll on my free time as expected, but in a manner I hadn’t anticipated – they levelled out and became far more manageable.
Almost immediately after Oration MMXVIII, I restarted work on Svartidauði’s Revelations of the Red Sword album. That was directly followed by extremely intensive work on five other albums in a short space of time. This put something in perspective – a little variation is key. When I was only working on the festival, all I wanted to do was get back into the studio, and when I was back in the studio, I couldn’t shake the idea that I needed to do another festival.
Truth be told, even during the last festival, I found myself thinking ‘next time, I’ll do this like that, and not do that like this’, which was immediately followed by self-scolding, until that cycle repeated itself minutes later! In my heart, I drove home on the last night knowing we weren’t done, despite convincing myself and everyone else we were.
Organizing and running the festival is exhausting and at times massively stressful, but it’s also exhilarating and extremely rewarding. We approached Ascension a little differently, with the idea of organizing everything over a longer duration and at a more relaxed pace. For the Oration Festivals, despite our best efforts to be on top of things early on, the last weeks before the festival and the festival itself were so intense, we were almost too busy to enjoy what we had created.
You are obviously very, very busy with a range of other activities besides organizing a musical festival, including Oration Records, Studio Emissary, and your own musical endeavors. I’ve had a bit of exposure to what that entails through my work on Northwest Terror Fest in Seattle the last three years, and I’ve found it daunting — and that’s despite the fact that other people involved with NWTF are doing much more of the heavy lifting than I am. I assume you’ve had help, but still, how in the world did you find the time to put Ascension together, especially since the line-up seems even more ambitious than Oration’s?
Well for one, it became apparent with every festival we do, that we need to start preparations earlier if we don’t want to be a big ball of stress in the last weeks. Given that the Ascension is a considerable expansion upon Oration, it was obvious we’d need to start early not just to keep our sanity, but also if we wanted to pull it off successfully at all. Once the decision was made to do another festival, I very consciously decided to scale down on studio work during certain months, giving bands specifics periods in which I’d be available for production work. This in itself has been a blessing as it forces bands to keep a schedule if they want to collaborate.
When it comes to organizing the festival, there is no ‘team’ per se. It’s myself leading the charge, with my better half Edda as my right hand. I have a small handful of close confidants I consult with, whose input is invaluable in an advisory role, but inevitably, the vision and direction are mine. During the festival itself, we have a small team of people we trust to assist with the actual execution.
The geographic reach of the bands on the Ascension line-up is wide-ranging (I count a dozen different countries represented by the 30 bands on the line-up), and there seems to be bit more stylistic diversity as well, even though black metal (in many different shades of black) is the most consistent theme. As you began thinking about organizing Ascension what general goals did you set for yourself in curating the music and otherwise planning the event, to keep it from falling prey to the potential pitfalls you expressed when closing down Oration Fest (you wrote then: “It would be easy to continue with success – to keep booking the same Icelandic bands and promote and brand the festival as a representation of all things ‘Icelandic Black metal’, but this to us wouldn’t feel right. To us, this would feel repetitive, exploitive and quite honestly, disrespectful to a scene we want to see flourish artistically, not commercially.”)?
I’m glad you brought this up, because I know I myself would be questioning this as a discerning spectator were this someone else’s festival, hence it should be addressed. Simply put, we decided that we were not only going to book black metal bands. I enjoy listening to a wide array of genres and thankfully in 2019, so do many other black metal fans. My attitude to curation is much the same as that with musical composition – dynamics reign supreme. Just as I don’t want to listen to a 50-minute album of only blastbeats, I also don’t want to listen to 10 straight hours of black metal. As appealing as that may have sounded to a 19-year-old version of myself, I think for most, that idea is quite exhausting. If you are going to attend a festival for 3 days and listen to music for 10 hours each day, you need to be kept stimulated, you need breaks, your ears need rest, and most importantly, you need to experience highs and lows.
As expected, Ascension drew comparisons with Oration, and rightly so. This was never going to be any other way and that’s absolutely fine – we’re proud of what we did with those festivals. But make no mistake, it is a different festival. As you point out, bands from twelve different countries are performing. And in fact, only 13 of the 30 bands performing are Icelandic and several of those are not black metal bands. Of course, some of the ‘usual suspects’ are playing, but it needs to be considered just how linked some of these bands are to us historically and personally. For those unacquainted with how Studio Emissary ties in with the festival as a whole, allow me to summarize by saying that our work with the studio is absolutely integral to the festival.
In the last year, we’ve worked on albums by Svartidauði, Sinmara, Kaleikr, Akrotheism and Vastígr. All five of these bands are playing Ascension MMXIX, with both Kaleikr and Vastígr making their live debuts at the festival. Then we’ve previously produced works for Almyrkvi, Zhrine, Jupiterian, Above Aurora, and needless to say, Rebirth of Nefast. That brings us to 10 bands out of 30 that the studio has worked with. Suffice to say, we try our best to accommodate Studio Emissary related to bands when possible and appropriate, so much so, that were some of the ‘usual suspects’ not playing, it just wouldn’t make sense. Besides, many members of these bands are close associates and have been involved since the first Oration. On a personal level, it wouldn’t feel right not having them part of the proceedings.
Ascension’s line-up also includes bands who seem never to play live, or only rarely (Antaeus, Akhlys, and Aoratos, to mention a few), which of course is one of the event’s attractions for fans. How do you succeed in inducing such bands to perform… and to come to Iceland to do it?
I like to imagine it’s my charm that makes this happen, but it’s likely not. It could be any number of things. For starters, bands are eager to play in Iceland just for the experience of it. Another element, and this is something I don’t think I’m imagining, is that we’ve quickly built a strong reputation with our festivals. We try our utmost to treat attendees and bands as we would like to be treated ourselves as music fans and musicians. As someone who’s been on all sides of the fence, I know what I want and what I expect – I know what I consider to be genuine hospitality. If I play a festival or gig, I’m probably going to be tired, I’m probably going to be hungry and I’m most certainly not going to be content with sleeping on the host’s floor or in a room filled with twenty other people. In other words, we look after our artists and attendees – they appreciate that, and that is something that spreads.
Were there any confirmed bands you contacted with whom you hadn’t had any previous direct contact through some other activity over the years?
Quite a few actually. And this time, as we’re dealing with quite a few more established and less underground bands, we’ve not even had the luxury of dealing with them directly – but through booking agents.
The final Oration fest was in March, which was breathtakingly cold for an outlander like me, and now Ascension will be in June. Perhaps perversely, I think I’ll miss the shock to the system of bending into a freezing wind when stepping outside, but also interested in seeing Iceland during a different season (which I assume will be balmier, and of course with a LOT more daylight). And while Oration was set in Reykjavik, Ascension will take place in Mosfellsbær, which seems like a suburb of the city (and looks like a sparkling tree from high above at night). Why did you decide to make those changes of date and place?
Many reasons again – curiosity, capacity, venue availability, convenience, a change of scenery, the list goes on. Historically, the end of the year is a very busy time at the studio, with every band rushing to get releases finished before the year is out. This did not coincide well at all with planning a festival for late February/early March. That, and just the general hustle and bustle of the holiday season is responsible for enough calamity as it is without throwing a festival into the mix.
I will admit that I’m still trying to imagine walking outside the venue at “night” during Ascension, head filled with such night-dark music, and being greeted by… daylight. Do you have any concerns about the sun breaking the mood and spiritual atmosphere of the music and its interior settings?
None whatsoever. I actually think the contrast will add to the experience – almost like you’ll be stepping into another world when you enter the venue. It’s hard to imagine until you experience it, but the midnight sun is fascinatingly surreal.
What can we expect of the Hlégarður venue where the fest will occur? What kind of place is it? And for that matter, what’s Mosfellsbær like?
It’s not a conventional venue, in the sense that it doesn’t have concerts on a regular basis. It more so hosts functions and events. It is, however, one of the few establishments in the capital area that can actually host an event of this nature. The area where the stage is located holds approximately 400 people, and then there is also a large open area that is perfect for merch, exhibitions, or just sitting down to take a breather. One thing that was very important for us, was that Hlégarður has a fully functioning kitchen. We intend to sell our own food and have even gone so far as to employ the services of one of Iceland’s top chefs to design the menu.
We want Ascension to be a different experience than Oration. To be more of an all-encompassing festival and less like three very long gigs in a bar. We also wanted the festival to present more of what Iceland has to offer in terms of landscape, especially as Reykjavík becomes more and more a tourist trap, and less and less representative of the charm this country has become known for.
Mosfellsbær is, by Icelandic standards, considered to be the countryside. By most other countries’ standards, it’s a suburb of Reykjavík. It’s a 20-minute drive from the absolute center of Reykjavík, yet it really does border on the Icelandic wilderness. You only need to drive a further minute out of Mosfellsbær to experience classic Icelandic desolation.
As I wrote in one of my Oration MMXVIII recaps, the performance of Rebirth of Nefast to close the festival was staggeringly powerful. It was a dazzling way to end things. So, without trying to butter you up in the least, I’ll honestly say it was a thrill to see that Rebirth of Nefast will perform again at Ascension. Do you have any clues to throw our way about what you might be planning for this next performance, which I gather will be the only one in 2019?
Most likely the only one, yes. At least there are no concrete plans for anything else. I can’t give too much away. As for the performance, I’d like to say something, but I can’t yet unfortunately.
Will the live Rebirth of Nefast line-up be the same this year as at the last Oration Fest (I think Þorbjörn from Zhrine and Þórir from Svartidauði were guitarists last year)?
The line-up will shift around this year. Þórir and Þorbjörn were indeed guitarists for the previous shows, but they had to step down due to new commitments. For now, I’ll not mention who the new line-up will consist of.
Do you have any other titillating teasers to share about what we might expect from performances by other bands?
Expect some exclusive sets, some possible collaborations, expect the unexpected.
Oration Records has released live recordings from the first two Oration Fests, with work now in progress on the final installment of the trilogy. Do you have plans to do the same for Ascension?
Perhaps, in some form, we’ll have to see. It’s a huge undertaking. As it stands now, however, progress on the Oration MMXVIII album already moves very slowly. These live compilation albums are essentially labours of love. They require hundreds of hours of work and make no sense financially, yet we still want to do them. To us, they are monuments.
When I publish this interview, I’ll include details about transportation, lodging logistics (including the option to camp in Mosfellsbær), and ticketing, but apart from that, are there any closing thoughts or announcements you’d like to share with us about Ascension?
Interested parties can check out our website www.ascensionfestivaliceland.com, our Facebook page and event page for further information.
Actually, I do have one more question. One of my crew of Iceland traveling companions wanted me to ask if you have access to an Icelandic horse she could borrow as a buddy for the duration of our visit in June? After a chance encounter on the roadside last year, she became infatuated with them.
I don’t personally, but you can tell her she’s in the right town if she wants to see the famed Icelandic horse!
Tickets to Ascension are 14,900 Kr (approximately €107 / $123). There are no day passes, only festival passes. A maximum of 5 tickets can be purchased per person, and the age restriction is 20 and over.
There is a camping site, which is run by the town of Mosfellsbaer, approximately a 5-minute walk from the venue. It accommodates 50 tents and costs 1,200kr (€9/$10) per night/per person. There are other lodging options in Mosfellsbaer, but for those who choose to stay in Reykjavik, it is possible to book a place on a shuttle bus for all days of the festival (tickets MUST be secured by pre-order). More details about these subjects and more can be found at these locations:
And here’s the full list of bands scheduled to perform:
Common Eider, King Eider(US)
THE ORDER OF APOLLYON(FR)
Rebirth of Nefast(IRL/IS)