04.11.15 — 01.17 — Fri. Night — Hotel
The curated day is a Roadburn tradition going back to David Tibet of Current 93, who was the fest’s first curator in 2008. This year, the hallowed duty was bestowed on Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjørnson and Wardruna multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Einar “Kvitrafn” Selvik, and their day took on the title “Houses of the Holistic.” I don’t know who picked what individual band for what stage, or if the two agreed on everything or what the situation was, but I know the results were pretty magical, particularly on the Main Stage, which hosted — in order — Virus, Sólstafir, Fields of the Nephilim, Warduna and Enslaved, who joined forces for the final set of the evening to perform Skuggsjá, a Norse-minded work originally commissioned to honor the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution and first performed at the Eidsivablot festival last fall. To my knowledge, Roadburn 2015 is the second time it’s ever been played in public.
I did some wandering, as one will, but the day started with Virus, who played Roadburn in 2012 and were among the most talked-about bands that year. I knew I didn’t want to miss them again, so I got to the main hall well in time for their start, which unfolded quickly in a technically intricate post-black metal from the lineup of guitarist Carl-Michael “Czral” Eide, bassist Petter “Plenem” Berntsen and drummer Einar Sjursø. They came highly recommended, and while I heard The Black Flux, their second album, when it was released in 2008, that was also seven years ago and it seemed reasonable to expect they would’ve progressed even further along their dissonant path. Sure enough, while they dipped back to their debut, 2003’s Carheart, for “Be Elevator,” it was the material from 2011’s The Agent that Shapes the Desert that most stood out to me, “Chromium Sun,” which appeared early in the set, and “Dead Cities of Syria,” which followed soon after, as well as the new song that served as their closer, “Rogue Fossils,” which Eide teased as being included in their to-be-recorded fourth record, calling it “atonal.”
A challenging start to the day, but Virus‘ avant twists weren’t impossible to track. “Rogue Fossils” was downright catchy,” and the turns of “Lost Peacocks” from The Black Flux weren’t so sharp as to go off the rails. Obviously that’s a credit to the trio, whose sound is individualized enough that it could only have grown organically. If you were to start a band and say, “Okay, we’re going to sound like this,” wherein “this” is Virus, it would fall flat. Some things just need to grow on their own. It was an impressive showing, but I also wanted to catch Ivar Bjørnson‘s ambient project, BardSpec, which was making its debut on Stage01, the smallest of the rooms at the 013. Easy enough to wander over, and I managed the rare feat of getting in before it was too packed and found Bjørnson‘s experimental side in full display, a table set up on the stage with mixing boards, guitars — Enslaved‘s Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal sat in on guitar, and I mean “sat” literally; he was behind the table, largely hidden from view, sitting on a monitor wedge — a laptop and no doubt two or three other swirl-making doodads obstructed from view.
Decked out in a shirt the homemade-seeming designs of which reacted with the blacklights in the room to look like they were glowing in the dark and glasses with lights in them, Bjørnson soundscaped and built on waves of drone from Isdal‘s guitar, manipulating a live mix while video played on the screen behind. Formative, maybe, but ambitious, and Enslaved bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson showed up to watch as well. With a primary focus on atmospherics, it was maybe more of something you’d put and close your eyes to than something to watch on stage, but I almost always find the live creation of droning sounds interesting, to think of that as part of a performance. I stayed for a while and went back and forth to watch Virus finish their set, waiting for Icelandic four-piece Sólstafir to take the Main Stage, which they did — in force, by storm, or however else you want to say it. Like Virus, they played in 2012 and were much heralded, though they also played yesterday doing the live soundtrack to the Icelandic film Hrafninn Flýgur (“Flight of the Raven“), so either way, the Roadburn crowd was familiar with their wares.
Even after playing yesterday, though, Sólstafir drew what was at that point the biggest crowd I’d seen so far at the Main Stage. There were many Sólstafir shirts in the audience, and it didn’t take long for the band — who’ve had the same lineup since the turn of the century with guitarist/vocalist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason, guitarist Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson, bassist Svavar Austman and drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason — to demonstrate how they earned such loyalty. Supporting last year’s fifth LP, Ótta (review here), they played “Dagmál,” album-opener “Lágnætti” and the title-track right off the bat, Tryggvason a consummate, emotive and charismatic frontman, wielding an e-bow for his guitar as if it was powered by his heart, but the whole band just dead on, through and through. I had been looking forward to seeing them for a while, and they more than justified the anticipation. The ending of “Ótta” alone was worth standing there, but I stayed put for just about the entire set and was treated to “Kukl” and the title-cut from 2011’s double-album, Svartir Sandar, as well as “Rismál” from Ótta, which was a highlight, and “Goddess of the Ages” from 2009’s Köld.
The latter showed off some blackened roots, but there was strong sense of performance running through the whole set, and as far back as Sólstafir dipped into their catalog, that tied the show together. A dynamic band, strong in mood and consistent in their songwriting, they also held down that stage, no questions whatsoever. In their energy and their presence, they owned it. Another album or two to follow-up Ótta and I would not at all be surprised to find Sólstafir return to Roadburn in a couple years even higher on the bill. I won’t get to see them on their US tour, which begins April 22 (dates here), but at least now I know what I’m missing. I can’t imagine what they’d be like in a smaller space — Reggies in Chicago, Red 7 in Austin, etc. — if Tryggvason would go into the crowd as he did for “Goddess of the Ages” before climbing back on stage to end out with more e-bow. They’re something special, and I got the vibe from their set that they’d likely be something special whatever the context in which one happened to be seeing them.
There was a break in between Sólstafir and Fields of the Nephilim, so I shuffled over to the merch area and picked up a couple odds and ends — mostly Live at Roadburn releases; Papir, Papermoon, Sula Bassana, and I had my eye on a YOB, The Unreal Never Lived Live at Roadburn 2012 LP that I might have to make mine on the morrow — and ran back to the hotel to drop off the goods, getting back in time for the legendary UK goth rockers to hit the Main Stage, carrying with them a host of classics I’m woefully out of my depth discussing, having never really followed vocalist Carl McCoy or the band. They were something unknown to me, which has an appeal on its own, and particularly following Sólstafir, it was easy to read a Fields of the Nephilim influence in retrospect, in headwear and style. I never gothdanced, but there were some shimmying shoulders to be seen for “Dawnrazor,” “Moonchild” and others, though with Dutch prog legends Focus shortly on in the Green Room, the Main Stage attendance thinned out noticeably, Fields of the Nephilim having gone on about 15 minutes late. They’re back tomorrow as the headliners on the Main Stage.
As I understand it, that’s because Walter is a huge fan, which is probably the best reason you’re ever going to see a band playing Roadburn. They don’t have a new record out, they’re not touring, but they’re here doing two sets because Walter, who is the head, figurehead and face of the festival, loves them. Who could argue? I’m not sure I’m a convert, but it gave me a chance to get some dinner, watch Focus through the door for a bit — I’d done similar with Icelandic black metallers Svartidauði earlier, and found them satisfyingly ripping — and still get back in time for the start of Wardruna, about whom I had zero preconceptions. Before they went on, two tiers were added to the stage, making room for the Norwegian outfit’s range of percussion, vocalists, and so on.
Very much led by Selvik — he was the only one on the lowest level of the stage while they played — they were nonetheless an orchestra. Atmospheres so thick you could swim in them, harmonies rang out in Norwegian, telling Viking tales of a history to which I can’t relate but set me off wondering what it might be like to be from a place with a traditionally homogeneous culture; how it might be to have a “team” in terms of nationality. Americans divide. That’s what we do. I don’t have any experience with a history like that into which Wardruna seemed to be tapping, Selvik with a variety of traditional instruments at hand. It’s easy to respect it, and the performance, if you’ll pardon my saying, was splendid. Soulful, rich, immersive and as complex and beautiful as anything I’ve heard at Roadburn in my seven trips here. But even “Americana” discounts entire portions of my nation’s population, so outside the language barrier, I had a bit of cultural wall standing between me and Wardruna‘s Viking paeans, though by the time they got around to the memorable dirge “Helvegen” from 2013’s Runaljod – Yggdrasil, I was ready to set sail on whatever hand-carved ship they might’ve had parked outside the 013. One could almost hear the lapping waves of the Norwegian Sea.
Over in the Green Room, it was a different kind of traditionalism playing out. Oslo-based trio Tombstones riffed loud, riffed early and riffed often — their tones a dense, earplug-vibrating lumber that grooved on vicious roll. I knew I liked that band from 2013’s Red Skies and Dead Eyes (review here), but I didn’t realize quite how much I liked that band. Guitarist Bjørn-Viggo Godtland and bassist Ole Christian Helstad shared vocal duties atop their own punishing low-tone and drummer Markus Støle‘s swinging crash, and with a hooded statue of Death on either side of the stage, they played some material I didn’t recognize — might be new? — but slammed home their sonic tonnage as though it was a thing to be directly hammered into the assembled skulls before them and headbanged with true doomly fuckall abandon. I hadn’t seen a band be heavy like that all day, so Tombstones were more than welcome, and the savage heft likewise. They were an act I was very, very glad to have seen at Roadburn.
Coming out of their set, I felt I had a better understanding of what they were about. Not that the album didn’t paint a coherent picture, but to actually see Tombstones made me better appreciate the intensity of their approach. “Intensity” would prove an operative word back in the main hall as well, with Enslaved getting ready to go on. Drummer Cato Bekkevold — buried, as ever, behind his kit — and keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen had already had their gear positioned in the back row, the highest of Wardruna‘s tiers, in anticipation of the Skuggsjá set still to come, but this was a special gig as well. Dubbed “House of Northern Gods,” it found Bjørnson, Kjellson and Isdal down front of the stage, leading the way through a setlist spanning all the way back to 1993’s Hordanes Land EP, with “Allf?ðr Oðinn” one of the several cuts chosen to represent Norse deities or their archetypes as the band tore through their discography with spoken samples between each song, and runes appearing and disappearing behind them on the Main Stage projection screen along with animations by the artist Costin Chioreanu.
No doubt there were many in attendance who’ve seen Enslaved more than I have, but I’ve seen Enslaved six or seven times by now — including at Roadburn — and this was hands-down the best show I’ve ever watched them give. Also the best setlist. For how tight they were, for the fact that after opening with “Frøyas Smykke” from 2000’s Mardraum (Beyond the Within), they launched into “Fusion of Sense and Earth” from 2006’s Ruun. Kjellson‘s rasp was in top form, and all five of them were raging full-on. It was, yes, intense, and it only became more so as “Fenris” from 1994’s Frost led into the more chorus-centered “The Watcher,” the closer from 2008’s Vertebrae, a one-two that brought to mind not only Enslaved‘s intended focus on Norse mythology for the set, but the progression they’ve undertaken in their 24 years together. For his part, Larsen now sounds better live singing the clean parts on a song like “The Watcher” or “Path to Vanir,” which followed, than he sounded in the studio when they were recorded, his confidence and prowess as a vocalist an ever-increasing factor in Enslaved‘s growth.
Put it this way: I saw Enslaved in New York about three weeks ago. Not only did I stay put for the entirety of their “House of Northern Gods” set, but I’m planning on watching them again tomorrow as well. They wrapped by bringing out an acoustic guitar for “Axioma,” which seemed intended to serve as a transition to Skuggsjá, though there was a changeover necessary and one of Selvik‘s stringed instruments had some technical trouble, so there was an added delay there too, the members of Enslaved and Wardruna both on stage at their appointed start time of 00.15, or thereabouts, but not actually getting going until after 00.30.
When they did start, Skuggsjá was both modern and deeply rooted. With Bjørnson and Selvik at the front of the stage, and a total of 11 people participating, they blended elements from both bands as well as some experimentalism and grand choruses into something beautiful and unique unto itself. I’m keeping my fingers crossed it gets released as a Live at Roadburn album, because it deserves it. To describe the bare parts doesn’t really do justice to what was happening on stage. It was a moving late-night performance that, knowing it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I was glad to stick around and see.
With the second day down, there’s still plenty of Roadburn 2015 to come. More tomorrow, but until then, there are some more pics as well after the jump.
Thanks for reading.