The preamble to Part 2 of this report on the just-completed Ascension Festival Iceland won’t be quite as long as the intro to Part 1 (which you can find here), though I can’t resist including one episode I omitted yesterday.
As forecast, this Part of my report mainly includes commentary about the music and photos from the third and fourth days of the festival. As before, I’ve pretty much just copy/pasted things I posted on Facebook while the event was in progress.
Part Three, whenever I can get to it, will be some kind of wrap-up.
The previously omitted event concerns a pre-fest night of carousing that took place among me and a bunch of Seattle friends at a new watering hole in Reykjavík called Lemmy Bar. How could we not visit a place named for Lemmy?
I was expecting some kind of dive where nothing but Jack Daniels would be available, but I was absurdly wrong. The interior of the bar, which spans two floors, is fantastic. And they served Brennivín, which was all I needed in my continuing mission to completely replace my blood with it before returning to Seattle.
The night was also memorable because one of our crew ran into an old friend from Norway whom he had met at a festival there. That old friend, and his traveling companion, became fast friends whose company we enjoyed throughout Ascension Fest. Small world.
Anyway, here are photos from the interior of Lemmy Bar. (We did lots of eating and drinking at other places during the couple of days leading up to the festival, but I’ll spare you photos of those experiences.)
And with that, let’s move into Day Three of Ascension.
You may recall that on the night of the second day the festival organizers had spread the word on social media that new Icelandic government covid restrictions were expected to be announced by noon-time on the third day, and that those restrictions might involve reducing capacity limits for indoor events below 500, which would have prematurely shut down Ascension.
Needless to say, that gave all of us a case of nerves until noon arrived and we got the news that Ascension would be allowed to continue. Hallelujah! And so back to the equestrian center we went, with beaming faces.
(I’ll add that I woke up on the third day to find a text message from my spouse back in Seattle, saying that my bag had been found (the checked bag that never arrived along with me on my flight here from Seattle). She got the call because I had taken one of her bags and it had her name on it. The baggage tag had gone missing, which was why Icelandair was having no luck finding it. The bag was still in Seattle, but was supposed to ship out for Iceland that night.)
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this report, the band Port was supposed to open the third day, but last-minute covid-related issues prevented one of that band’s members from making the trip, so the third day opened with…
Iceland’s Nyrst opens the third day with force-of-nature black metal — towering and turbulent, vast and perilous, the kind of experience that swallows the senses. To add to the spine-shaking, soul-shuddering impact, the screen behind them displayed stunning film of Arctic seascapes and landscapes. And the vocalist was extraordinary in his range and variations. A great beginning.
THE UMBRA ENSEMBLE
A drum, an upright bass, a fiddle, a harp, a synth, and crystalline voices. The Umbra Ensemble created an ethereal transportive experience at Ascension Festival, and I mean a transport to what seems like thousands of years ago in the northlands.
Trepaneringsritualen have 20 letters in their name, without spaces. (I’m not too drunk to count to 20 but soon will be lucky to get to 10). I look at it and I think of trepanning, even more so now that I’ve seen and heard them.
An ugly voice gargling from a throat clotted with viscera and glass fragments, booming ritual drums, haunted-house synth emanations. Primitive and petrifying music. The kind of grotesque but hypnotic psychic filth one shower won’t clean away.
(P.S. Trepaneringsritualen does indeed seem to mean “trepanning ritual”.)
I’m not quoting my Facebook post verbatim this time, because in retrospect I was needlessly churlish about the length of Grave Miasma‘s sound check. I blame the Brennivín. Yes, it was a very long sound check, but there could have been good reasons for that, and anyway, there’s no reason to be in any kind of hurry at Ascension. All time is time well spent — including the time spent with this band’s grisly, gruesome, and grinding death metal.
I had made it my personal mission to see every band on every day of Ascension. I came close, but failed. The first failure was Finland’s Hexvessel.
I got caught up in a conversation outside the music hall, really as more of an observer than a participant. A boisterous Icelandic dude sat down at our table. He was engaging at first, but then things took a nasty and aggressive turn. One of my friends insisted that the interloper leave immediately (one of the most polite “get the fuck out of here” directives I’ve ever heard).
I was afraid things were going to get even nastier, and I didn’t feel right just walking off. As it happens, the guy did leave, hustled away by one of his friends, but by the time this all happened, Hexvessel were just finishing their set. The rest of the night people berated me for missing it — their set evoked tons of enthusiasm among my friends.
VED BUENS ENDE
For us non-Norwegian speakers we can read that Ved Buens Ende means “By the end of the bow”, referring to the mythological rainbow Bifröst. Metal nerds know how influential they have been. To hear them at Ascension is a bucket list item checked off. It does feel like gliding up and down through the rainbow, and even into a Celtic Frost cover.
Their set marked the end of the third day, and what a wonderful way to end it.
If you’re keeping track of the saga of my checked luggage, it was delivered to my hotel on the morning of the last day of Ascension Fest (Saturday morning). Soon I’ll take it back to the airport for my return trip to Seattle. I wondered whether I should even bother opening it.
We had to get another rapid antigen test on Saturday morning (a day on which the infamous Icelandic winds were howling and rain was coming down after days of relatively dry and sunny weather), and then puttered around the Kringlan shopping mall, which was adjacent to the testing site, before making our way on to the venue.
I got kind of crossed-up, thinking the fest would begin later than before because of a drop by Grave Pleasures — but forgot that Port had managed to make it back into the line-up. So we arrived just as Port’s set was ending (and that was the second band I missed at the festival) — but in time to see one of the Ascension’s biggest surprises.
Here’s what I wrote on my personal Facebook page about the first set I saw:
“I continue to be amazed by how much musical talent exists within this small nation. Úlfúð discharged coal-charred melodic death metal (or death-corrupted melodic black metal) — heroic and harrowing, with sharp melodic hooks coated in dark and increasingly depressive moods. Full-bore intensity at all stations, and the sound quality was excellent. I think they must have played some new music, beyond the one 4-track EP they released three years ago. Worth watching for”.
P.S. Within minutes of launching the foregoing words on Facebook Saturday night, Matt Calvert of Dark Descent fame commented that he had Úlfúð’s debut album in hand and that Dark Descent would be releasing it. That is very good news indeed!
Ascension has already thrown so many curveballs that the average batter has struck out swinging a lot. The latest one was today with the solo power-electronics performer A.M.F.J. Compulsive beats with an African resonance, other sounds that resemble fleas swarming down your spine or a live power cord thrown into your shower, and shrieked vox. Hard for a phone camera to pick him up because he’s in constant motion.
Now we begin to run the black metal gauntlet on the final day of Ascension, beginning with Dynfari, and the crowd has swollen full in the music hall. With a bunch of albums, Dynfari have a lot to work with, and continually shift the mood and momentum. Vocals range from the torch to the wail and the hunger for the listener’s throat. I get dark post-punk in some songs and turbulent muscle or anguished hypnotics or soft and beautiful depletion in others. It’s a good ringing, rumbling, and wretched ride through the wasteland, i.e., our modern life.
SHRINE OF INSANABILIS
The main man of German Shrine of Insanabilis brought in some talented allies for Ascension, and together they created blazing black chaos, thoroughly scathing and exhilarating but also ringing like chimes of severe loss, and in the rare slower moments erecting monuments of towering pain. All I had hoped for.
I think Almyrkvi’s lineup still overlaps significantly with Sinmara’s, but the music is more dissonant and unnerving, everything from the highly variable vocals, which rise from the wolf snarl to riveting song, to the kaleidoscopic fretwork (which rang at times near the end like a paranormal harpsichord) combining to create nightmarish yet seducing visions.
They use their license to claw out the dark places we try to keep hidden and expose them in blunt honesty yet with hallucinatory effect, reveling with the dire and dreadful inner creatures they have found. A grand and grievous tapestry of terrors.
IMHO, Dødheimsgard are one of the most fascinating bands on the planet, wild, freeing, thoroughly discombobulating. Insanely disruptive and surprising, they challenge and poison, creating phases of grotesque malignancy and brain-swirling magnificence. The music spans about 40 years of heavy music and progressive rock. They will you to surrender all expectations, and all comforts of what you know. The kind of diabolical baroque carnival that makes you think Hell would be your kind of place, as long as you could leave at the drop of a hat.
The very definition of avant-garde black metal. So thrilled to see them at Ascension. And as a big bonus, Kvohst (aka Mat McNerney) joined the band on vocals for one song, though by that point I had moved too far back from the stage to get a photo.
By the time Mgła hit the stage I was more than ready to hit the hay (possibly by way of the bar), so, after sampling a few songs, I bid a wistful goodbye to another year at Ascension Festival….
You probably know what it feels like to reach the end of a festival. I felt both exhilarated and sad that it was over. The shuttle bus ride back to the vicinity of our hotel was a subdued one for me.
But on the walk to the hotel with other Seattle friends we came upon a take-out place that was still open, and so I arrived back in my room with a warm chicken shawarma in my hand. I felt a bit like Tony Stark at the end of the first Avengers movie after he realized he wasn’t dead. Damn tasty, and good enough to revive my spirits before crawling into bed, head still swirling with memories of those four wonderful days.
More reflections coming in Part 3, which I ought to finish in time for posting tomorrow as we begin making our way back home.