(It is Monday as I write this, though it will be Tuesday before you see it, as I agreed with Mr. Synn to post his own reminiscences about Ascension Festival on Monday. All the photos are my own, unless otherwise noted.)
I had a restless period of half-sleep on Sunday night. In part that was due to the sweltering conditions in my Reykjavik hotel room. The sun, which briefly dims in Iceland this time of year but never sets, had warmed it up during the afternoon and the two small windows were restricted in how far they would open, rationing the amount of cool air that could come in. I missed my second-floor room at the Hotel Laxnes in Mosfellsbær where I could keep the door to a balcony wide open, and all the windows gaping, and enjoy the breeze ruffling the gauzy curtains until the land of Nod fully took me.
But mainly my restlessness derived from the fact that I couldn’t shut off my brain. It was still flooded with memories of Ascension Festival MMXIX, which ended in glorious fashion at roughly 2 a.m. on Sunday morning in Mosfellsbær. Of course, many of those memories were re-playing the music that had bombarded and mesmerized the senses over three days, but an equal number that continuously flashed through my mind in that half-waking, half-dreaming state were of other aspects of the experience that had become just as indelible as the sights and sounds from the stage.
Especially in the case of relatively small music festivals like this one, at least half the attraction for me (and for many others) is the opportunity to be with old friends and to meet new ones in an environment where we’re all immersed in something that inspires us, sharing the energy and the excitement (and in most cases, copious amounts of alcohol). But there were other aspects of Ascension that made the overall experience even more special.
The setting was certainly a big part of that. Encompassed by a sky that dimmed briefly between about midnight and 3 a.m. but never became dark, Ascension and the nearby surroundings of Mosfellsbær seemed to bleed into each other, creating a glimmering un-real sphere of shared experience that seemed suspended in time and space, not subject to the laws of commonplace existence, sort of like an Icelandic version of Brigadoon, that mythical Scottish country village that appears only once every hundred years (though hopefully we’ll only have to wait for one year until this particular un-real sphere re-enters our world).
Well, you’re probably thinking by now that I’m excessively romanticizing things, especially for a musical event that was dominated (but not exclusively so) by black metal. So, allow me to explain why I feel this way (actually, I’m not really asking your permission, since I’m forging ahead regardless). I do intend to get to the music, but not today, other than a brief preview/summary at the end of this post. Here I want to focus on other aspects of the experience that made it so memorable. Tomorrow, or the day after that, I’ll share some thoughts, photos, and videos of the performances.
I had the great good fortune of traveling to Iceland for this festival with a group of five other metalheads from Seattle with whom I’ve shared the experience of other metal fests, including the last Oration Fest in Reykjavik in 2018. In addition, my NCS co-conspirator Andy Synn made the trip from Nottingham for Ascension and companionably fell in with the Seattle group, as he’s done on other occasions.
All of us also linked up with another group, most of whom we’d enjoyed spending time with at that last Oration, and some of whom were new acquaintances but soon became new friends. Their nationalities were scattered among Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Finland, Norway, and Spain (including our Norwegian friend eiterorm, who has contributed guest posts to NCS and has been a continuing source of musical recommendations to me for many years).
In the long hours each day before, during, and after the festival we all spent significant time together talking (and drinking… and drinking… and talking). It was easy to do, not just because all those people are so interesting and so easy to be with, but also because of the setting… which I’ll come to soon. I missed a few of the performances, including some I had been very eager to see, but sometimes I just didn’t want to tear myself away from such great companionship.
But those weren’t the only people who made the socializing aspects of Ascension so damned good. This was the kind of fest where the performers were also mingling with the ticket-holders, at least for the day of their performances and in some cases for longer than that. And so I had great conversations with some band members whom I had gotten to know from other fests and shows and some whom I met for the first time.
Of course, I also enjoyed meeting and gabbing with other fellow ticket-holders, some of whom were themselves musicians (especially the Icelanders, one of whom made me a hand-rolled paper of snuff to stick up between my lip and gum, and which made me feel like the day was just beginning at 3 a.m.). I also had the great pleasure of finally meeting Stephen Lockhart in person, who along with his partner Edda are the people who made this event a reality — TAKK FYRIR OKKUR to them!
There were, of course, some number of awkward people I encountered (I certainly wasn’t counting) who drank themselves into states of near oblivion, but as far as I could tell they were happy drunks. The only security “incidents” I witnessed or heard of involved security staff politely escorting a couple of boisterous inebriated people outside the venue when their arm-waving antics became too much of a distraction to people around them during shows. As security incidents go, those were of the mildest kind.
And in an unusual degree of respect for a metal festival, not even one band on stage called me or the other audience members motherfuckers! At least not that I heard. Some may have whispered it.
I also owe a deep bow to the staff at the festival. From the bartenders to the people who took and delivered the food orders and the folks selling wares at the merch table, they were all courteous, quick to smile, and focused on their jobs. They even laughed at my attempts at humor, which is really saying something. It had to be exhausting work — doors opened at 1:00 pm the first day and 2:00 pm the next two days, and the shows ran past 2:00 am, with clean-up chores going a lot later than that — but the staff always seemed to be on their game.
In other words, the people made this a very happy time for me. But that’s not all….
Ascension took place at a community hall and event center called Hlégarður in Mosfellsbær, a town of less than 10,000 people about 7 miles (12 kilometres) east of Reykjavik. Mosfellsbær — which I happily learned is often referred to as Mosó, because my mouth had trouble making the sounds of the full name — is in a beautiful setting, in a valley close to the sea bounded by high, rugged hills. I wouldn’t call it a “country village” — the presence of a KFC and Domino’s Pizza would alone make that difficult — but it is still small enough and sufficiently entwined with nature that it has a very different feeling from the urban setting of Oration and most other fests I’ve been to.
The quirky but quite lovable Hotel Laxnes, named in memory of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness (a lifelong resident of the Mosfellsdalur valley), was the place where I slept — and I really didn’t do much more than sleep there. Its proximity to the Hlégarður venue, which was about a two-minute walk and visible from the balcony of my room, was part of that feeling of being in a sphere in which the surroundings and Ascension blended together. I felt I was still part of the festival even in the environs outside Hlégarður.
As a bonus, the Mosó Grill was a two-minute walk in the other direction, and it made me feel like I’d time-travelled back to my childhood in central Texas (other than all the Icelandic words). Soft-serve ice cream and good burgers made for hearty fortification in lieu of breakfast, though I soon discovered that its burgers were put into the shade by the brilliance of the ones on sale at Ascension.
And speaking of attractions outside the Hlégarður hall, while a parking lot bordered the front entrance of the building, in almost every other direction were sloping green lawns and park land. The weather was very mild throughout the festival, and the sun shone brightly in blue or faint grey skies dappled with wispy clouds almost the entire time. That made it even easier to get caught up in conversations outside, and to forget that the rumbling sound not far away was the next band gearing up for a new onslaught inside.
To one side of Hlégarður, a large tent had been set up, perhaps in anticipation of rains that never came but equally useful for other purposes. It was lined with rows of benches for sitting, and included a small bar that I frequented for shots of cold Brennivín and engaged in running jokes with the bartenders about the bits of fermented shark they were hawking (more about that in a minute).
As mentioned, the sun was also an ever-present companion. Only one week away from the summer solstice, it dipped near or below the horizon only briefly in the wee hours of the morning, dimming but never darkening the skies. This did weird things to the body’s circadian rhythms, but the upside was that it was pretty easy to feel wide awake and full of energy straight through the late end of every festival night (generally around 2 a.m.) — depending on how much alcohol you had consumed during the preceding 10 or 12 hours. More about that in a minute.
Hlégarður was damned near perfect for this event, both in its layout and in the warmth of its atmosphere (which of course had something to do with the warmth of the staff people). Just inside the front entrance was an anteroom where tickets were taken and wristbands affixed; it also included a few places to sit down, and the toilets (where I assume you could also sit down if you were patient).
Passing through the next doorway, the interior opened up into a large room with broad windows across the opposite side looking down into the verdant park land and trees — and all that ever-present daylight. This room included another bar, larger than the outpost in the adjacent tent, a counter where you could place food orders, merch tables, white walls lined with gorgeous artwork prints and photographs, and tables, chairs, and couches.
To the left of that room was the music space, wood-floored and a bit longer than it was wide. The outer wall of that room was mainly glass, but shrouded with black-out curtains to keep things suitably dark for all the dark music. Those black floor-to-ceiling curtains had the effect of radiating heat into the room from the sun outside, which was pleasant enough until bodies fully packed the space. But working up a sweat is of course not a rare occurrence at a metal festival, and it was always very easy to step outside and be refreshed by the persistent coolness of the exterior air.
The sound systems seemed very good to my admittedly damaged ears, and the stage was draped with banners on the sides and backed by a large screen that often displayed the fantastic Ascension Festival artwork, but also was used by some bands for other displays that deepened the experience of the music (more about that tomorrow).
I don’t know how many tickets were sold to this fest — it finally sold out a few days before it began — and I’m not a very good judge of crowd sizes, but I would guess that somewhere in the vicinity of 400 – 500 people were present. For the early sets each day, the music room was very comfortable. After that, it got pretty packed and pretty warm.
I’ve definitely been in settings that had a more sardine-can quality to the population density than this one, and I certainly wouldn’t say this venue felt over-sold. I was never scraping shoulders with the person next to me or feeling their breath on my neck. All in all, it seemed like Ascension struck a good balance between the venue’s capacity and the number of tickets sold.
THINGS TO PUT IN YOUR MOUTH
Let’s begin with Brennivín, because a double-shot of that is how I began each day at the venue — and how I ended each day, and how I celebrated the changing of the hours in between. I put a shitload of that clear, unsweetened schnapps down my throat, having already become mildly addicted to it while in Reykjavik for the last Oration. Apart from a couple of gin and tonics bought for me by friends from Finland and Norway mentioned earlier, Brennivín was what floated me pleasantly through the long days of music.
Of course the bars served many other things, and I guess multiple varieties of beer were the main drinks of choice. You could carry your drinks anywhere, including outside on the side patio and while reclined on the grassy lawns.
As promised by Ascension, the food menu was very enticing and of vastly better quality than what’s available at all other festivals I’ve attended. The fact that you could get it inside the venue itself, and that all profits from food and drink helped to finance the event, made it taste even better. I can’t offer a review of all the food items on sale, because I got completely hooked on the incredibly juicy and flavorful Festival Burger. It became mid-afternoon lunch and late-night dinner, and never lost its zing.
Okay, let’s talk about fermented shark (hákarl). That’s how it was described on a hand-scrawled sign taped to the counter of the small bar in the tent described earlier, I guess because that sounds somewhat more civilized than putrefied shark. At first, the bartenders brought out a bowl of little cubes of the stuff from the refrigerator for me to smell — and man, what a completely ghastly ammoniac aroma it was.
I spent a solid day of Brennivín trips joking with them about it and wondering what straits of sheer desperation led their ancestors to figure out that you could eat it without vomiting it right back up, or dying. I’ve read that in the earliest days, the traditional way of fermenting shark was to bury it in the ground and then urinate on it before letting it rot for months, which apparently succeeded in getting rid of acid in the flesh that would otherwise kill you. How do people think of such things?
I imagined (out loud) what those conversations would have been like: “Poor Oláf died after eating that last shark. Let’s try peeing on it and letting it rot before we eat it again. Maybe that will work.” How many starving and stubborn Icelanders died before they hit on just the right combination of urine and time in the ground?
As I drifted in and out of that tent over two days, the bartenders gave me a running count of how many cubes they were selling. But even without that info you could tell they had been selling some of it, because the tent soon began to reek with the same aroma despite the breeze passing through. Of course, I had absolutely no intention of putting it in my mouth. Bear in mind that after trying it himself, this is a food that Anthony Bourdain said was one of the few things he would never eat again — along with Namibian warthog rectum.
And of course I eventually ate a cube. I watched two of my friends eat it, without displaying any visible signs of a gag reflex, so what the hell. The taste wasn’t nearly as foul as the smell, but definitely was not good. So of course, mainly to play the fool and entertain the two friendly bartenders, I ate another cube later on. I blame the Brennivín.
OTHER THINGS TO BUY
The merch at Ascension was something special. In addition to a rotating selection of band merch, CDs, and vinyl, there were shirts and a hoodie featuring the fantastic artwork (just above) commissioned for the festival itself, as well as prints of the artwork. As mentioned earlier, one wall displayed other artwork prints and photographs of musicians (mainly Icelandic ones), which were also for sale.
I happily dropped money on multiple occasions at those tables, in part because the Hotel Laxnes was only two minutes away and it was easy to offload the purchases rather than carry them around the venue all night and eventually lose them somewhere.
FINALLY, you say, finally he’s getting to the music!
Well, not today. I mean, this has been long enough already, hasn’t it?
And besides, I haven’t started writing about the music. I do have an 8-hour flight home later today, so that should give me time enough, assuming I’m not in a state of deep depression over leaving Iceland. But fair warning: I’m probably not going to do much more than re-use brief impressions I wrote on my FB page right after seeing the bands I enjoyed the most, along with the photos I posted there as well.
I also have a handful of videos on my phone that I hope to upload to YouTube and embed in the next Part of this post, but will have to wait until I get home to try that. With a 7-hour time zone change, I’ll get to Seattle an hour after leaving Iceland. The night will be young! And eventually, night will actually fall there, which now will be weird….
Sinmara photo by Woda i Pustka