By Mark Gromen
Dormant, of course, but in the zeal to find the proper angle to photograph the lava-less crater, paid more attention to scenery and camera adjustments, foregoing the wet, muddy crag of decent before me. Boom! (cue Howard Cosell voice): “Down goes Frazier!” Nikon intact and nothing hurt, but my pride, attempted to remove some of the brown mud now caked on my black jeans, utilizing some nearby, residual snow. Stretching to wipe behind the knees, flop, another takedown for the old Icelandic rocks. Thankfully, it was the only mishap in two full days of sightseeing, traversing a beautiful, often otherworldly terrain. In addition to volcanoes, including the active variety, geysers, glaciers, fjords, caves, majestic or frozen waterfalls, mountains, lava encrusted earth, geothermal hotspots randomly billowing smoke into the sky and shifting tectonic plates dot the landscape: Iceland has it all! Including a never ending supply of hot tap water (long shower lovers rejoice), albeit with a characteristic sulfur smell.
During my stay, casually joked that I'd probably flown over the island nation more than a hundred times in the last decade, on the numerous round trips to European concerts, festivals and vacations, so afforded the chance to visit and see more than just the capital city of Reykjavik, while helping to select their national metal ambassador for Wacken, it was a no brainer. Over the course of five days, several global metalheads, journalists and in-country music industry personnel convened, under the guidance of Thorsteinn Kolbeinsson, who acted as chauffeur and impromptu tour guide, as well as hosting the Metal Battle, a live band competition that rewards the winner with a trip to Germany, in August, where they “compete” against representatives from dozens of other nations, for a recording contract. Bands get exposure and the giant Wacken festivals gets a lot of acts to fill out the undercard of the multi-day roster. This year's tournament was held at Harpa, the elegant home of the national symphony and opera company. Situated at the tip of Reykjavik harbor, the ornate, glass structure is a geometric work of art, obtuse trapezoidal prisms catch/refract the sunlight and at night, man-made luminescence dances across its facade.
There was a half dozen hopefuls competing, another who failed to make the finals served as opening act. There was also a performance from last year's winner and a headlining set from local legends SKÁLMÖLD. Each competitor got 20 minutes to strut their stuff, followed by a quick, ten minute changeover, everyone utilizing the same backline. Doors opened at 5:30 and TRUST THE LIES were onstage a half hour later. Several of the judges headed to the upstairs bar. Discovered a few days earlier, despite the ritzy locale and posh attired attendees at the other venues housed within the same structure, its happy hour offered some of the lowest drink prices in town, in fact half to two-thirds less: $3.75 bottle of Budvar (aka Czechvar) vs. $7.50 - $10 for an indigenous pint/draft, elsewhere.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the economic problems of the past (declared bankruptcy in 2008), Icelanders have developed a virtually cashless society. Yes, you can still get paper money (500 kronur note being the smallest denomination!) and handfuls of coins, but most simply use plastic for every purchase, big or small: gas, groceries, even each drink at the bar (thankfully bartenders aren't expecting tips). In a nation where the population totals just under 350,000, apparently problems like identity theft aren't an issue. Although I'd personally want to have some hard cash, having no faith in electronic commerce via banks that went bust just a few years earlier, but that's just my jaded American perspective. In fact, crimes of all sort are seemingly unknown (a monument/reminder outside of town commemorates the 4 traffic fatalities thus far in 2013), the Icelandic police not carrying guns. Vast stretches of single lane roads (some barely paved) that criss-cross the sparsely populated, to uninhabited portions of the volcanic island would prove welcome dumping grounds for dead bodies, with little chance of being spotted, let alone convicted, if murder were an issue. A simple people, most still involved in the fishing industry, as Kolbeinsson said, until 80 years ago, there was still at least one family living in a cave. Modern society, without many of its ills, enjoy it while you can, Iceland.
Never been a fan of screamo/metalcore in the DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN / CEPHALIC CARNAGE brand. The first band onstage, at any of these type of contests, is at a distinct disadvantage. Apparently knowing the odds, the singer for IN THE COMPANY OF MEN took the stage in Luigi (of Mario Brothers fame) attire: poufy hat (with L monogram) and faux moustache (probably too young to grown one of this own, anyhow). Unfortunately, the first words out of his mouth were to demand people stand up (it was a seated venue) and approach the stage. Ironically, several of the universal judges had been talking backstage about bands demanding things of the audience (remember this was basically an unsigned band event) in a room with fans from all the other bands. He spent all of the first song shouting from the floor, fully engaged in the moshpit and was later joined by the bassist. Upon returning to the stage, it was game over for the video game character, rippring off the disguise.
MOLDUN saw a trio, in cut-off, sleeveless flannel shirts across the stage, although presenting far from a unified front, as the guitarist stage left apparently didn’t get the memo: wearing a simple white tee and sticking out like a sore thumb. Lumberjack metal? Well certainly not of the burly type, apart from the growling, bearded singer. Modern metal, breakdowns from the LAMB OF GOD school, with a hint of hardcore. Under almost exclusively red lights, ABACINATION perform a growling, indecipherable grunted blackened death metal of a slower, tortured vocal, old school variety. The giant stage was sort of lost on them, as apart from their meandering/roaming singer, the rest probably moved a greater distance by simply walking on and off the stage. Hey, they’re still young and look at the fretboard too much, but they strung together some guitar harmonies beneath the hellacious racket they create. Decent, but worthy of Wacken? Not yet. On the final song, the singer throws the mic to the ground and stalks off, as the band plays to conclusion.
8pm already, yet to this point, didn’t get the feeling that any of the bands grasp the opportunity afforded them and certainly hadn’t prepared anything special (Luigi costume excluded). AZOIC offered a big sound, from little guys, a foursome with the singer doubling on guitar. Flanked by smaller (in stature) members, all whom had charcoal smears across their stage, the tethered singer centered the cohesive image, although in customary military sweater and blond, side-parted bowl cut gave the impression he was an Aryan youth (not sure that’s an image you want to cultivate). Punishing melodies and a booming voice. However, yet another LD (lighting director) chose to forego the amazing bank of visual effects at their disposal, opting to keep the reds on almost perpetually, or otherwise complete darkness. I'm all about setting a mood, but given the array of moveable lights (venue houses world class opera) a club mentality prevailed. We might as well have hosted the competition in a cave.
?OPHIDIAN I is a fivepiece technical/progressive death metal outfit (featuring several Swedish expatriates) fronted by a demented Edgar Winter look-alike. What with Icelandic metal singer's attire? You don't have to be the second coming of Rob Halford, in head-to-toe leather, but sweaters, flannel, buttondowns over band T-shirts? Speaking of band tees, the members were in their favorites: invest in stage clothes! Their use of white strobes nearly blinded those down front, now adapted to a couple hours of das. There's plenty of power, but also a groove, within the music. At no point, throughout the entire contest, was I able to photograph two musicians in the same frame. Gives some idea of how isolated all the performers were, onstage. More than most, the OPHIDIANs moved about, whipping their hair and really selling it, definitely interested in winning the prize, which ultimately happened.
A cynic might say that desolate landscapes, bankruptcy and/or a threatening volcano has negatively influenced the collective psyche, one of foreboding and despair that’s reflected in the music, as other than Kolbeinsson’s mix tape between bands, one would be hard pressed to know there was anything in Iceland, beyond the hardest edge of metaldom: thrash, death or black. The final contestants were thrashers BLOOD FEUD, a foursome with dual singers/instrumentalists. Their jagged lettered logo has a skull, mouth agape, intertwined. They were an energetic bunch, undoubtedly rammy after being cooped up for so long. After six band and more than three hours, it didn’t take the judges long to render a decision. Some were more interested in witnessing last year’s victor, GONE POSTAL, who played 30 minutes. Not quite GHOST, with incense burning onstage and all in matching black hoodies, but the music was an exaggerated passages of instrumental drone, with periodic emotion, usually screams/bellows. This post-metal was atypical from the rest of the evening; slow methodical pace and the odd blur of sonic (hyper) activity. Certainly didn’t take full advantage of the stage, as they could have played inside a minivan. Statues move more freely.
The winner was announced, along with runners up: AZOIC and BLOOD FEUD. This gave OPHIDIAN I about 90 minutes to concoct an encore (or they simply could repeat their original set), which would close out the night. In the meantime, there was the matter of a national treasure. Really had no reference point for SKÁLMÖLD, a name mentioned reverentially, being one of two Icelandic metal bands to break into the international scene (alongside SOLSTAFIR). A proto-thrash mix of Viking/pagan and metallic folk (humppa, in the rest of Scandinavia), delivered by six players, including a trio of guitars and a keyboard! Lyrics are sung in the native tongue. All the previous backline/equipment was removed, leaving the Skas with a two-tiered stage. Most of the frenzy/action was in the pit. Keys were utilized to mimic pipes, violins and other esoteric, non-metallic accents. Some of their countrymen (no ladies) were driven to removing their shirts, standing side-by-side, bare-chested in the crowd.
Our verdict rendered, several of the international crew bolted Harpa, heading to a nearby bar, for ANGIST, a female fronted death metal outfit and THE VINTAGE CARAVAN, who turned out to be THE find of the weekend (remember that name!). Here’s a switch (especially within the harder realm), a fourpiece, with two women, neither of whom play bass, nor drums: ANGIST. Matter of fact, both ladies sport guitars, black leather and flailing blond hair! The postage stamp sized stage, a little fences gate separating the crowd that gathered up front, could barely contain the VINTAGE trio’s equipment, but nothing (not even an isolated island) can keep these 18 and 19 years olds from bigger things. Amazing blend of aggression and musicianship well beyond their year, names like FRANK MARINO and RICK DERRINGER (or for the youngsters, maybe LENNY KRAVITZ) were bandied about, by the usually jaded press corps (regardless of age, or musical preference), now agog at the live display. How does this happen? 70s style, blues based hard rock is the style, but the delivery is first rate. They might not be able to grow sideburns, or chest hair to fill the shirts open to the waist, but no matter. Young kids, doing the right thing. Already plans to get their albums released outside Iceland, as well as play some continental Euro fests. Check ‘em out.
In fact, if you get the chance, visit Iceland and revel in the wonders: musical and otherwise.
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