Yesterday I wrote about almost everything that mattered to me about the recently concluded Ascension Festival MMXIX in Mosfellsbær, Iceland, EXCEPT the music. If you happened to wade through that long post, you’ll know that a lot of things mattered to me besides the music — and I think most other people who attended the event experienced the same extremely positive feelings about what surrounded the sounds. But I suspect all that enthusiasm would have been diminished significantly if the music hadn’t also been great.
Fortunately, it was. With very few exceptions, my own reactions to the bands’ performances ranged from pleasantly happy to wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and aghast in wonder. All that good feeling easily carried over into conversations with friends and new acquaintances in between sets, in beautiful surroundings and sustained by good food and drink. In turn, the fun of that camaraderie carried right back over into the music hall for the next set, in a kind of thrilling feedback loop.
Usually, after each set I posted a few immediate thoughts on my personal Facebook page while the reactions were fresh, along with a few photos, and sometimes a video, all of which I made with my phone. Because I was using my iPhone rather than a top-shelf camera and have no training as a photographer, the quality of the images was quite unpredictable. Sometimes I was pretty proud of the results; more often it was a disaster, particularly in the fog-shrouded performances.
I also didn’t spend a ton of time taking pictures. My main objective was to just sink into the music, and I sure as hell didn’t want to annoy anyone around me. So I tried to get that out of the way early and fast in each set, and then put the phone away. I also tried to get up close to the stage but in a far corner so no one would be behind me (and few would be in front of me).
One consequence of this was that I was often close to the big cabs set up on either side of the stage on the floor. That proximity probably had the effect of distorting the sound that my phone picked up, and certainly had the effect of turning my internal organs into porridge (don’t knock that if you haven’t tried it). Most of the time, I just stayed in those locations after taking my pics, because the view was so good and sometimes because the crowd was so dense that I didn’t feel like fighting my way out. Sometimes I did move back to the rear of the hall where it was less claustrophobic and the sound was more balanced. Sometimes I entered the hall too late to get close to the stage.
What I’ve done below is to repeat verbatim the immediate reactions and many of the photos that I posted on FB right after the sets. Those immediate thoughts are in italics. And I’ve added a few more words now and then, since I’ve had a bit more time to reflect — mostly about sets that surprised me. And most of those were by bands who were outliers from the main musical themes of the event. Their appearance was clearly a calculated move by Ascension, a way of creating diversions from the black metal onslaughts and breaks in the intensity. Some of these breaks consisted of ritualistic and transportive ambient music that complemented the overarching dark atmosphere of the event, but there were even more dramatic digressions. Who knew, for example, that dance music would work so well in an event such as this one, or would be so well-received by this kind of audience? It had to have been a gamble, but it was one that worked.
You’ll figure out if you were there, or if you look at the scheduled line-up, that I missed seven of the 29 bands who performed. This was not for lack of interest. It was because I was caught up in some conversation I didn’t want to terminate, or because my body was screaming at me to give it a rest or to get food and water (and Brennivín). I’ve learned over time not to beat myself up over missing bands at festivals for those reasons; it’s better just to go with the flow and let nature take its course. Hopefully you won’t beat me up either.
I have a handful of videos I want to upload to YouTube so I can embed them here, but (with one exception) I didn’t get that done after arriving back in Seattle last night. I was still on Iceland time, where it was after 3 a.m., and no ever-present sun to buoy my energy. I’m going to try to get those uploaded today, and then come back here and update this post to include them. If you check back tomorrow, you’ll probably find them.
P.S. You might also want to read Andy Synn‘s own impressions of the performances at Ascension MMXIX — which you can find here — in part because he caught some of the bands I missed.
Rebirth of Nefast ended the last Oration and began the first Ascension in spellbinding fashion, setting a very high bar for all other bands to follow.
Spellbound is exactly what I was, both times. I appreciated the link of continuity that the performances of Stephen Lockhart and his accompanists provided between the two festivals; both festivals were his own brainchild, as is Rebirth of Nefast, although Ascension was an expansion and an alteration in several ways as compared to Oration.
The set at Ascension really was one that left my eyes wide in wonder. In a way, I thought it was unfair to begin the fest with such a performance, because rising up to similar heights of oracular power would have been a tall order for anyone having to perform next.
It turns out that the Polish black metal band Above Aurora turned in a worthy follow-on performance, delivering a different kind of power all their own. We had premiered a song off the band’s latest album (which is quite good), and I had high hopes for what they might do on stage, and wasn’t disappointed. For reasons I don’t remember, I took no photos.
I had a pretty good idea from past experience what Iceland’s Naðra were going to throw at us, but they were even more uproariously fantastic than the first time I saw them. As I wrote after their set:
Such glorious explosions of riot and rock. The temperature in the room went up dramatically. Fantastic!
And yes indeed, it suddenly got very hot inside the Hlégarður venue. In part that was because the size of the crowd had swelled as compared to the opening two sets, and in part it was because Naðra’s music really got people rocking out hard, generating a pressure cooker of body heat.
Aoratos / Akhlys. Wriggling needles under the skin while being broiled by flamethrowers, with respites that resemble being transported into the middle of the Black Plague.
These are the two side projects of Nightbringer’s Nass Alcameth, and he and a full band performed tracks from the recordings of both projects (I think for the first time). Perhaps for technical reasons, perhaps for other reasons, the show didn’t quite live up to the high expectations created by the albums. It was viscerally disturbing for sure, but maybe not necessarily in completely intended ways.
I enjoyed Tribulation’s set WAY more than I thought I would. A hell of a show.
I remember Tribulation when they were a death metal band. In fact, I saw them perform as a death metal band — and thought they were really good at what they were doing. Since then they’ve taken a dramatic turn toward a kind of hybrid gothic-death-rock, and made an equally dramatic transformation in their appearance and stage presence. I’ve had mixed feelings about the newer music — but no mixed feelings about what I saw at Ascension. I was instead transfixed (particularly by the willowy dancing of the guitarist just above me)… and simultaneously rocking out, right up against the stage.
The whole thing was over-the-top, but in the way that true rock stars who’ve perfected their schtick are over-the-top. Trust me, I get equally entranced by black metal bands who barely move at all, standing in deep blue darkness like hooded menaces about to devour your soul with waves of dense, enveloping sound. But this thrilling carnival of delights also left me intoxicated (or more accurately, more intoxicated than when the show began).
Sólstafir were fantastic tonight. So many songs I’ve never heard them play live and probably never will again.
What Sólstafir did was to play their remarkable 2009 album Köld in its entirety — and it was indeed fantastic to hear those songs performed so intensely and so well. I’ve seen this band on two other occasions in Seattle, and never heard most of these songs live before. The performance of one song, “Necrologue” (which the band don’t play often), made a particularly deep impression. Dedicated to a friend who took his own life, it caused Addi Tryggvason to begin weeping before the song ended, finishing some of the lyrics at a distance from the mic. It had the same effect on me, kindling a flood of memories of family and dear friends I’ve lost.
I didn’t write any immediate impressions of Misþyrming on FB — just their name, followed by a bunch of exclamation points and a video. It was a downright explosive set, with so much hook-heavy, head-hammering energy that I half-expected the venue to spontaneously combust.
And this was the Mosfellsbær sky at 1:30 a.m. as Day One ended:
This was the Mosfellsbær sky in the late morning the next day:
By the time I got my ass in gear and met some friends for a late lunch at the Mosó Grill, I had missed the opening set by NYIÞ. But I did see the collaborative set that followed it:
Carpe Noctem plus the hooded NYIÞ. Towering thunder and lightning storms diminishing to dismal sodden downfalls… with wailing horns, singing bowls, ritual rattles and other unusual sonic emollients. Terror and spells, in sequence and together. Magnificent.
This was another set that left me shaking my head in stunned disbelief. I had to sit down outside to get my bearings. Everyone else I talked to was similarly amazed by what we had just witnessed. As one friend remarked, it was one of those one-of-a-kind experiences you hope for when you go to a live performance. I hope it was recorded; I hope it will be released some day. It was too special to live only in memory (though the memories will remain vivid).
I was barely able to collect myself before rushing inside to catch Jupiterian, a Brazilian titan of a group I had never expected to get to see on stage. My reactions right afterward:
The sheer crushing immensity of Jupiterian’s music is stupefying, but the seething and hallucinatory qualities of their music come through in their live performance, twisting neurons and vibrating the marrow in the bones. What they did here, like the imagining of a meteor strike, will leave eyes wide in wonder and fear.
The next set I caught was the one by Drab Majesty. This was the first of the real outliers I heard at the festival, a band that Ascension included in the line-up for the purpose of broadening the horizons of Oration Fest, and I suppose to give people a break from the onslaught of black metal. I had heard bits of their last album (they have a new one on the way), which punched a bunch of my nostalgia buttons — but I was nevertheless almost shocked by how much I enjoyed their show (and by how hard I danced — which I would probably be embarrassed to see).
The futuristic shining melodies, the convulsive beats, the morose vocals, the ‘60s platinum hair, the Hollywood shades, the whole gestalt of Drab Majesty sent me on a massive nostalgia trip through the gloomy romantic mists of Joy Division and Human League, and I loved all of it, in a sweat. Is that too much information?
I made the mistake of waiting until Antaeus began playing before going into the music room, which left only space for a few mice at the back extremity. It was still stupendous even from that distant vantage point.
At 11:15 pm, while outside, I wrote: I hear the distant trauma of Mitochondrion attempting to atomize the venue. I suppose I should go mingle my atoms with the rest of the refuse.
And afterward I wrote:
Listening to Mitochondrion is like surfing crashing waves of blood and bone, and simultaneously surfing wormholes that bend space to undreamed destinations. All these people are involved in other projects, but here they seem to let themselves go in creating a mind-melting blend of brutal militarism and delirious witchery.
To close the night was another one of those well-conceived curve-balls. As in the case of Drab Majesty, I had heard a few songs by Gost but hadn’t been grabbed hard by the recorded music. But the live set was another extravagant dance-a-thon that left me tremendously happy:
Gigantic wobbles, flickering imps, New Wave beats rendered at bowel-loosening frequencies, megaton destructiveness, gothy vocalizations mixed with skin-bubbling shrieks, more than enough venom to leaven the inherent dance-ability (or dance-nihility). And the dude (now joined by another voodoo skull-faced bandmate on bass) knows his music so perfectly that his convulsions and extravagant jumps on stage are timed to the nanosecond. I’m pretty fuckin sold on Gost.
Shrouded in an atmosphere of mysticism (and dense fog) Akrotheism delivered a fine melding of bleak grandeur and fervent ecstasy. The vocalist’s seamless transition from snarls to extravagant yells and tortured wails was inspiring. A great start to the final day.
Anyone yearning for neck-wrecking storms of heavy artillery death metal mixed with wintry Dissection-esque black Metal got their fix with The Order of Apollyon and their three roaring frontmen. Explosive and relentlessly thrilling.
This was a different kind of curve-ball in the line-up, more death metal in the music than any other band on the line-up had presented — and the performance by these Frenchmen turned out to be one of the festival highlights for myself and many of my friends.
Auroch — the sound of massive piranha swarming upon the carcass of humanity, in the midst of lightning storms, and signs of some terrible eminence ascending on the horizon, to take its place on a throne of skulls above the wasteland.
After that riveting Auroch performance we got yet another curve-ball in Kælan Mikla, and in much the same way as Drab Majesty and Gost had affected me, I got an old memory trip out of it — but it was more than that, just as it was in the case of the other two bands, in part because this Reykjavík trio were also so much fun to watch. I also realized that I had spent some time talking with vocalist Laufey Soffía the day before without realizing who it was, after she asked to borrow my cigarette lighter.
This mix of gloomy EDM and post-punk with searing and somber vocals works much better on stage than I thought. Felt completely enraptured. As elsewhere in this fest, nostalgia played a role.
I only caught the last three songs of Kaleikr’s set (because I was outside talking with Laufey Soffia again), but it seemed like a sequence of novas.
And after that, I went outside again…
After that break:
Another great Icelandic band, this time the interstellar mystery and mayhem of Almyrkvi. Extravagant vocals, and there’s a lot to be said for the disorienting flat crack of the china cymbal in this kind of music.
After Almyrkvi came another one of those Ascension curve-balls, this time a set by the French dark ambient project Treha Sektori. I knew nothing about this man’s music going into it, and coming out I was flabbergasted, with knees wobbling. Unfortunately, from my vantage point I couldn’t see the video screen behind the performer, but was told that the imagery was frightening, and a great complement to the performer’s ritualistic electronic manipulations..
I made a video myself, under circumstances I described right afterward. I laughed when I watched it later — the sound vibrated me, or my phone, or both, as if we were tuning forks. (This is the one video I have managed to upload so far, so you’ll find it below.)
Can’t wait to see how the video I took sounds, assuming it didn’t destroy my phone. I was perched in a sliver of space right up next to a floor cab (apologies to all for the organs below my rib cage absorbing so much sound, and if it’s any consolation they all liquefied). Treha Sektori did this thing. I can send the hospital bill to him, for all the good it will do.
When Svartidauði are at the top of their spirit, and they were at the pinnacle tonight, of the times I’ve heard them, they channel the glorious chaos that so many bands strive for but few achieve as brilliantly as they do. I’m left literally breathless.
And then we reached the end. After that stupendous set by Svartidauði, there was a risk of an anti-climax, but it was a risk that Bölzer brushed aside:
Until the last song the video behind Bölzer was a film of a rolling lightning storm, and then it was the roiling furnace of the sun. And the imagery was perfect, because they performed like a force of nature, with ferocious power, earthquake grooves, volcanic heat, and the wail of wolves. There was prescience at work here in the scheduling, because it was a perfectly extravagant ending to a stunning festival. And pretty sure Sturla from Svartidauði made a guest appearance near the end.
If you’ve made it through everything I’ve written for today and yesterday, there’s no mystery about how I feel concerning the Ascension experience. So I think I’m going to dispense with any summing-up, especially because it would likely become maudlin. I’m instead going to end with a fervent wish sent through the ether to a certain couple in Reykjavík:
Please bring us Ascension MMXX next June!!!
UPDATE: Earlier today (June 20th) it appears that fervent wish was granted. A statement of thanks added by Ascension Festival Iceland on its Facebook page ended with this postscript: “Let’s not leave any ambiguity, Ascension MMXX is happening.”