Ascension Festival Iceland MMXXI come to a glorious end last night, surmounting what seemed like a non-stop swarm of perils to provide a fantastic experience for all who attended. I was lucky to be there from beginning to end, for all four days and nights.
Both for myself and for many others, it was the first live music we had witnessed since March 2020 or earlier. That gave the experience both an extra poignancy and an extra shot of energy. I can hardly imagine a better way to have a taste of “normalcy” after so long, though of course “normal” is now a highly relative term.
Of course the music was only part of what made this covid-delayed edition of Ascension so memorable. It was a reunion of old friends and the good fortune of making new ones. I’ll remember the people and the conversations as much as the music.
I didn’t come to Reykjavík with the intention of writing about the festival, but that’s what I’ve done, which I guess won’t come as a shock to anyone who knows me (I am a bundle of compulsions shaped like a human being).
I’ve divided my journal into three parts. In Part One today, I’ve provided a bit of color about the festival setting and then included notes and photos of the performances during the first two days. In Part Two I intend to include impressions and pics from the third and fourth days of the fest. In Part Three I plan to do some kind of wrap-up.
I’m not sure when I will finish those last two Parts; I’m still in Iceland for today and tomorrow and have other activities ahead, plus a whole lot of catching up to do on a bunch of stuff I’ve ignored for the last four days.
People who have the misfortune of being friends of mine on Facebook have already seen most of the photos and my comments about the performances, because I was shoving them into their news feeds near the end of each set. But there’s some new stuff here too.
The people behind Ascension must have felt like ping-pong balls as they bounced from one venue plan to the next, one plan after another falling through, due to no fault of their own. If they don’t have bleeding ulcers by now, it would be surprising.
Where the fest actually did take place — a switch that was announced only 12 days before the event was to begin — was Reiðhöllin í Víðidal, an indoor arena on the outskirts of Reykjavík. I guess there have been musical performances there in the past, but it seems primarily to be an equestrian center. I heard they have had dog shows there as well. Different dogs on show this time.
The indoor arena is a large one, but only a fraction of it was set aside for Ascension. Floor-to-ceiling black curtains walled the music space off from the rest of the dirt-floored arena (shown below), and solid flooring was set down between the stage and the stadium seating arrayed above the floor.
And yes, there was seating! The floor space was large enough to accommodate everyone without crowding (one of the beautiful things about Ascension is that it is a small event compared to most other European festivals), but the option of sitting down was a great one, especially because the seats afforded unobstructed views of the stage from every row.
My biggest worry about attending Ascension was whether I would be able to remain standing for four days and nights, having mainly sat on my ass in front of a computer at home for the last 20 months. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief when I walked into the music hall.
Outside the music hall, and just inside the entry doors to the building, was a long rectangular space that was populated with tables and chairs. That’s where staff checked people in and where Ascension had set up a bar and a place to order food, as well as a merch table and art installations. It’s also the place where people congregated for conversation between sets, unless you wanted to brave the cold outside (and eventually the rain on the last day).
“Festival Burger” – fantastic!
The other ping-pong game that was being played with Ascension involved Iceland’s covid restrictions, which changed repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the festival and even during the fest, thanks to a sharp surge in cases. By the time the festival began, Ascension required proof of vaccination and proof of a negative rapid antigen test not more than 48 hours old in order to enter.
My friends and I didn’t pay close enough attention to Ascension’s recommendations about when to get tested, and so we got our first test on the morning before the festival began, foolishly thinking that the 48 hours would include the first two days of the event. But they really meant 48 hours, and so when it became clear that those hours would expire before the commencement of the second day at Ascension, we had to get tested at the beginning of the second day, and then again at the beginning of the fourth and final day.
Fortunately, Iceland provides free rapid antigen testing, with bar-coded results emailed to you within about 15 minutes. The most expansive of the test sites was located quite close to one of the scheduled stops for the shuttle buses that ferried people too and from the event. It was an inconvenience, but as one of my American friends observed, “I’m just glad we’re in a country that gives a shit about stopping the virus.”
Masks were also required inside Ascension unless you were eating or drinking or could maintain required distance from others. People were on the honor system, but it seemed like most folks were respecting the rule — though I did notice that the number of masks in the music hall dwindled over time as the days passed.
By the end of the second day rumors were swirling that the government was going to impose even more severe restrictions, including the possibility of further reducing the number of people who could attend indoor events (the number was 500 when Ascension began, which was high enough to allow the fest to proceed). This could have terminated Ascension after it was only half-way completed. Thankfully, this did not come to pass.
The ping-pong game proceeded in other ways too. On the morning of the third day Ascension announced that Grave Pleasures, (Dolch), and Port had to cancel “due to illness and band members receiving positive results from antigen tests”. It was later discovered that a Port member had received a false positive test result, and so the band was able to open Day Four instead of Day Three.
parts of a photography installation by Daria Endresen at Ascension
Due to a crush at testing sites, the government temporarily dropped the requirement of testing for cultural events on Ascension’s last day, but the fest still asked for proof of valid negative tests and provided the option of self-tests at the venue. As they wrote on Facebook, “We are hosting to 100’s of people from many different countries and we want our festival to be a shining example of how the event industry can continue to function in these chaotic times if correct practices are followed.”
As someone who has smoked for decades and is “of a certain age”, I’ve been extremely reluctant to be anywhere indoors with a crowd of people, even though I’m fully vaccinated. I would not have come to Ascension if these requirements had not been in place. I respect and applaud the precautions they took.
Well, enough “local color” for now (there will be more in subsequent reports in this series). Here are my notes and photos concerning the music itself. Just be aware that I started drinking double-shots of Brennivín upon arrival each day and continuing through the night, so lucidity waned as time passed.
Fuck, I’m listening to live music again! Forsmán opening Ascension Festival Iceland.
(I was so fucking excited to be there I didn’t actually add anything about Forsmán‘s music in my Facebook post, so I’ll add here that they started things off with a blast of high-octane energy and power, really throwing themselves whole-heartedly into their set… which is part of why I felt so excited.)
Nexion deliver gut-rumbling heaviness but it’s the wonderful ring of the leads, like vibrating chimes, that causes the music to levitate at the same time. (Lots of my friends talked about this set for the rest of the night – it made a big positive impact.)
The first curveball from Ascension Festival – a surreal film by Treha Sektori, with the creator in darkness on stage manipulating the recordings. A collage of macabre and mysterious images, still and moving, surrounded by powerful primeval rhythms, futuristic ambient music, and occasional shamanic vocals. Creepy and enthralling.
Grungy and glittering angst-ridden and trippy hybrid of post-rock and hardcore from Poland. Fleshworld at Ascension. I’m falling into a lull.
Coffee, water, Brennivín, and Throane have revived me. Earth-quaking and head spinning black metal from France, made even more surreal by the macabre videos running behind them. Like waking up with a viper on your chest, they fix your attention.
Kælan Mikla have done well for themselves, riding the synthwave. The vocals that go from gossamer to riot, the booming beats, and the dreamy melodic floes… I feel like I shouldn’t fall for this but I do. Hell, I was listening to New Wave when it really was a new wave, and that worm is still in my head.
First day of Ascension Festival ends in a volcanic eruption. The electrifying, explosive power of Sinmara. Everything is off the charts, but especially the stupefying drum performance of Bjarni Einarsson.
I slept like a dead man after getting back to our Reykjavík hotel somewhere around 1:30 a.m. After dragging my ass out of bed with most of the morning gone on Day Two, I still had some other shit to deal with before heading back to the venue.
I didn’t mention earlier that when I flew non-stop from Seattle to Reykjavík with part of the big Seattle crew who made the trip, my checked bag, which I had packed for a 10-day vacation, somehow didn’t arrive. By the beginning of Ascension Day Two, which was my fourth day in Iceland, Icelandair still hadn’t found it.
By this point I decided I needed to do some shopping since I was still wearing what I had on when I boarded that flight in Seattle. That took some time, and more time had to be set aside to get that rapid covid test I mentioned earlier.
But we still made it to the venue in time for me to start drinking Brennivín and get positioned for the first band:
Morpholith opens Day Two of Ascension Festival. When I heard their latest EP I wrote, “Coupled with weird and wailing vocals, as well as voracious growls, the music proves to be alien and narcotic as well as cold, towering, and tyrannical…. A truly hellish and harrowing experience….” The feeling of earth/heaving cosmic horror comes through live too.
I think anyone who puts themself on stage must be courageous. I think one person who does this alone must be extra courageous. It may help that the woman who is Sólveig Matthildur has a wonderful voice and presence. Another reminder that Ascension has become an event for people with catholic tastes. I’m generally lost when it comes to musical genres outside extreme metal but I guess this is synthwave, or maybe operatic synthwave? Whatever you call it, it’s spellbinding.
I was just saying that Ascension Festival has become catholic in its tastes, but the pendulum always swings toward black metal, and so we get Mannveira next. Muscular, heavyweight, howling and bruising music, with what I connect to hardcore rage. Blast furnace intensity melded with ringing melodies.
OF THE WAND AND THE MOON
Another twist in the thorn-hemmed road of Ascension with Of the Wand and the Moon. New to me, it’s the solo dark neofolk project of Danish musician Kim Larsen and collaborators. Tonight he played solo beneath a screen of melodramatic footage from movies of the silent era, strumming his guitar with backing tracks that included some great clarinet performances. Though he can elevate his voice, he reminded me in tone and mood of Leonard Cohen. Pure heartbreak.
Even with the ring of the lead guitar sounding like a glass bell, Zhrine’s music hits like a tidal wave, with a powerful undertow that can pull you out beneath their dark sonic seas, or like sudden fractures in fault lines. I guess this is the fourth time I’ve seen them play their dire and distressing music. No disappointments yet, and this may have been the high point.
The small army of Auðn put on a hell of a show. The voice sounding like fury expelled from a throat being garroted. The kidney-punching grooves. The clarion-call melodies. The moods both depressive and exultant, defiant and delirious. An Icelandic speaker tried to teach me how to pronounce their name. Something like Oi-then, but expressed like you’re coughing something up. Fantastic set.
A lot of black metal bands fashion their music as a gaze into the abyss and an imagining of what might gaze back. The Czech band Inferno do this as well or better than anyone, and go even beyond that. They’ve cast off orthodoxy in an effort to connect with some time loop that stretches endlessly back and forward. The rhythms are primeval (this is the most neck-wrecking set of the fest so far) and trance-inducing and everything around them is mind-bending, and of course frightening. Frontman Adramelech is such an intensely chilling presence all by himself.
THE RUINS OF BEVERAST
It was at this point that ominous news began circulating about new Covid-related restrictions in Iceland that could imperil the continuation of Ascension Festival. We were told by the fest that more news would become available by noon-time tomorrow. That put a kind of anxiety-induced blanket on the congregation, but the last performance of the night dissipated it.
The Ruins Of Beverast brought the second day to a close with immense visceral power and mind-searing, mind-bending intensity. They’re now in the lead for greatest source of sore-neck syndrome at the fest.