(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of three posts we will publish in as many days about the recently completed Ascension Festival MMXIX, which took place in Mosfellsbær, Iceland, on June 13-15, 2019. These are Andy Synn‘s impressions of the event, and the next two are being written by Islander., who took the photos included here, unless otherwise noted)
As the title above indicates, I recently celebrated my birthday (all presents and donations will be graciously accepted), and this year decided to celebrate it in style by attending Ascension Festival in Iceland, where the brooding darkness and overall brilliance of the music was matched only by the brightness of the ever-present sunshine and the brilliance of the company.
So what you’re about to read is a few random thoughts about the experience which, while not totally comprehensive (although I made sure to see something of every band, I’ve decided only to write about the ones which really stood out), should hopefully convince one or two of you to join us at next year’s edition!
The first day of the festival was, arguably, the most jam-packed (and certainly most well-attended) of the three, kicking off with some nicely blackened vibes from Rebirth of Nefast and Above Aurora (the latter of whom I plan to check out in more detail as soon as I have a spare minute).
The afternoon really kicked into gear when Naðra hit the stage though, with the five-piece delivering what still sticks out to me as one of the best (not to mention most intense) sets of the entire festival, ripping through every single savagely infectious number as if it might be their last.
And while the punchy, punky undercurrent of the band’s blazing Black Metal performance (something which, in my opinion at least, continues to separate them from many of their peers) remained firmly in place, the little bit of new material debuted this evening hinted at an evolution towards an even hookier (though no less fearsome) style on their next release, with certain parts/riffs even taking on a sense of thrashy energy which reminded me of Skeletonwitch or Necrophobic at their very best.
Sadly the highly-anticipated Aoratos/Akhlys set was derailed by technical issues so never really took off, but thankfully the subsequent one-two of King Dude and Tribulation proved to be more than capable of getting the evening back on track, leading into a truly spellbinding performance by long-time NCS favourites Sólstafir, who this evening had something truly special up their sleeve, performing their classic 2009 album Köld in its entirety.
This was a particularly special moment for me, as Köld was my first introduction to the band’s music and remains my favourite out of all their releases, and I was not to be disappointed, as the quartet embraced this return to their more rocking roots with passion and gusto, even during the more sombre moments (including, according to the band themselves, the first ever live rendition of “Necrologue”, which they dedicated to a departed friend), reminding me why, despite my relatively lukewarm reaction to their recent material, Sólstafir continue to hold a special place in my heart.
Lesser bands might have been intimidated by the prospect of following a performance like that, but Misþyrming aren’t just any old band, and their new album (which would be played in full this evening) isn’t just any old record… something which tonight’s show proved emphatically.
Bringing that little bit of extra blood, sex, and priapic swagger to the scene – even as their peers pursue their own more atmospheric or more aggressive directions – the quartet delivered what could well have been a career-best performance this evening, ending day one of the festival on a massive high note to send us all home happy and headbanged out.
Day two began in a strikingly unusual and unconventional style with the riveting ritualism of Nyiþ, whose set consisted of a series of ambient soundscapes – purely instrumental at first, with vocals, both clean and harsh, making fleeting appearances later on – woven from odd arrangements of strings and horns, clashing gongs, rattling chains, and primal percussive patterns.
As striking as their performance was, however, their subsequent live collaboration with Carpe Noctem (performing their stunning 2018 album, Vitrun, front to back) was even more magical, and probably the high point of the entire festival for me.
You see, not only is Vitrun one of the best albums to come out of the Icelandic Black Metal scene so far, but the incredible pairing of the two acts (who, unsurprisingly, share several members in common due to the incestuous nature of the country’s small, but impactful, coterie of bands) turned their set into a real “event”, one which you really had to see/hear in person to truly appreciate in all its grim majesty and terrible grandeur.
So while I enjoyed pretty much all the following bands – particularly the doom-heavy delivery of Jupiterian and the blast-happy bludgeonings of Antaeus – it wasn’t until Sinmara hit the stage just before midnight, transporting us all into the darkness of the abyss by playing their entire new record, Hvísl Stjarnanna, in one unbroken sequence, that things once again reached the same ecstatic heights.
Sinmara photo – Woda i Pustka
As a quick aside, if there’s one thing which this festival demonstrated to me it’s that, with each of their new albums, the so-called “big three” of the Icelandic scene have taken some decisive steps away from the nascent “Icelandic style” in an attempt to define/redefine themselves.
With Misþyrming this has manifested itself in a looser, more swaggering style that’s purposefully designed to inject some blood and fire back into things, while Svartidauði have, to quote the old cliché, somehow managed to become both even heavier and even more melodic. Sinmara, however, have chosen to embrace their more atmospheric inclinations, resulting in a performance this evening that was significantly darker and more haunting – while still being as dense and dissonantly unsettling as ever – than any other time I’d seen them.
By contrast the closing set from corpse-painted and skull-masked synthwave duo Gost was an exercise in absurd sonic excess whose fusion of pulsing beats, bone-rumbling bass-tones, and shining, John Carpenter synths, somehow managed to get the whole place (or, at least, those who stuck around, which was actually quite a lot of people) dancing and moving and throwing their hands in the air with shameless abandon.
It was a knowingly ridiculous, but also ridiculously fun, way to end the evening, cynics and critics be damned!
The third (and final) day got off to a relatively bland start – not bad, but not great either – with Akrotheism (who I love on record, but who didn’t do much for me live), but this early lack of energy was soon shattered by the absolutely thunderous performance of French Death Metal quintet The Order of Apollyon, whose titanic heaviness and imposing presence made a major impact on this particular listener (seeing/hearing them for the very first time)… so expect a Synn Report on them very soon.
Day three was also my first time seeing both Auroch (having missed their recent tour with Rites of Thy Degringolade) and Kaleikr, and I wasn’t disappointed here either, with the former unleashing a veritable deluge of controlled chaos and devastating Black/Death riffosity (including a new track from their upcoming EP, Stolen Angelic Tongues), and the latter delivering a short but sweet set which, what it may have lacked a little in tightness, more than made up for in dynamic energy and progressive promise.
It was the cosmic calamity of Almyrkvi which really set the bar for the day however, with the band – bathed in cold blue light and performing before a backdrop of shimmering stars and black, cavernous space – producing one of the most captivating and unforgettable sets of the entire festival, such that it became practically impossible to look away from them for the entire time they were onstage.
I’ve said it before, when writing about their recorded output, and tonight really reaffirmed it… Almyrkvi deserve to be held up as one of the very best Black Metal bands currently operating worldwide. And you can quote me on that.
Of the following two bands, Wolvennest and Treha Sektori, it was the dark ambience and tribal rhythms of the latter which made the strongest impression on me, not just on a musical level but on a visual (and visceral) one too, with the accompanying background videos only serving to enhance the effect of the music… an effect which lingers with me even now. Check them out if you haven’t done already.
The festival closed with the powerhouse pairing of Iceland’s own Svartidauði and infamous Swiss duo Bölzer, and while the latter were certainly a good choice to finish the day (they don’t do much for me on record, but put on a really good show live), it’s the former I really want to talk about here.
You see, every time I’ve seen Svartidauði before now they’ve been amazing… but my companions have had the exact opposite experience, being roundly disappointed on every previous occasion. And, at first, it looked like things were heading that way this time too, with frontman Sturla’s ongoing struggles with failing strap locks, wayward microphones, and detaching leads robbing the first couple of tracks of their full potential.
But then, like magic, everything suddenly clicked into place and the rest of the band’s set was just one phenomenally powerful punch after another, their increasingly aggressive live performance displaying an almost Death Metal-like focus and intensity, with each successive song hitting harder than the last, until they finally departed the stage leaving behind a sea of beaming, slightly shellshocked, faces all fully primed for Bölzer’s climactic set.
As you can probably tell I had a hell of a good time at this festival, and hope that everyone else who went did too.
Maybe I’ll see you there next year? And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get some Sulphur Aeon or some Panzerfaust too?