From their early days on Skálmöld have honoured the tradition of celebrating their album releases with special concerts – or rather audiovisual performances – in seated theatres, and the only reason why I missed the earlier ones was the shameful fact that I was unaware of this band until a couple of years ago. My only lame excuse is that I hadn’t been following the folk metal scene in recent years apart from a couple of domestic bands, and Skálmöld had never been featured by Finnish metal media or played a show in our country. That deficiency was finally corrected in late 2015 with two gigs in Helsinki and Turku supporting Eluveitie, but a 45-minute opening slot abroad only gives a discreet hint at what these viking heroes are capable of at a headlining show back home in Iceland.
For the gigs at Culture Centre Hof in Akureyri and the university cinema in Reykjavík last week, Skálmöld didn’t even bring a support act but played two sets themselves with a 15-minute beer break in between. The movie screen served to support the light show with song-specific artwork and lyrics. Not that there hadn’t been enough time to learn them in advance: these were the official “release” shows for the band’s fourth studio album, Vögguvísur Yggdrasils, which has actually been on the market for half a year already. But, as lead vocalist Böbbi stated when greeting the audience, better late than never, not to mention that the thorough familiarity with the material only enhanced the enjoyment. I had expected them to play the full album first and then follow with older stuff in the second set, and indeed the concert started with “Múspell” and “Niflheimur”. After the latter, however, Böbbi announced that all new songs were about to be played but interspersed with older ones, and the band continued with the classic “Gleipnir” before premiering “Miðgarður” which is one of my favorites from the new album – not only because of its textual and musical references to Skálmöld’s 2010 debut Baldur. Unlike the earlier albums, though, Vögguvísur Yggdrasils does not follow a continuous storyline, so the blend of old and new did not interrupt the flow in any way.
“Ásgarður” was the first proper showcase for keyboarder Gunnar’s (pagan-)godly clean vocals, contrasted by the freaky middle part which was obvious fun for the three guitarists and a welcome outlet for the hard-hitting beast hiding behind the lovely smile of drummer Jón Geir. After that, good (or rather, evil) old “Váli” made a surprise appearance before the first set closed with the quick-and-brutal “Helheimur” and the stately “Álfheimur” with its Howard Shore style elven harmonies, flawlessly – despite Facebook-documented difficulties during rehearsal – delivered by brothers Bibbi and Baldur together with Gunnar.
After the second set started with the seldom-played “Upprisa”, bassist Bibbi took the microphone to dedicate the following song to Skálmöld’s avid fan club, Börn Loka, which was strongly represented at the gigs – especially in Reykjavík – and deservedly scored a bunch of new members on both nights. The song in question, “Narfi”, was rewarded with a standing ovation, but it was not only club members rather the entire audience who sung the “Vilja úr leyni…” chorus while the band itself stood utterly quiet.
The next song, “Útgarður”, had a Börn Loka connection as well, as it had been fan club members who performed the “hey!” shouts in its chorus on the album. At the gig, too, only much louder, and by the time Þráinn had finished his guitar solo most people in the theatre had gotten up from their seats. Difficult to sit on your butt during a concert of this caliber anyway. The excitement didn’t slack during “Niðavellir”, which had been quite a radio hit in Iceland last year, and “Að vetri”, likely the most popular track of Með vættum (2013).
But it was only after this that the best part of the show began: the 12-piece Margrét Þórhildur String Ensemble entered the stage while the artwork for “Vanaheimur” appeared on the screen, the final and most glorious track of Vögguvísur Yggdrasils. Needless to say it sounded even more impressive and dramatic with the strings, and though I cannot entirely forgive myself for missing Skálmöld’s concerts with the Symphony Orchestra of Iceland in 2013, this pretty much felt like the next best thing. Simply speaking I didn’t want for the song to end, and when at last it did, it took me a moment to reground myself while the band left the stage to probably do just the same. No need to beg long for an encore though – they quickly came back and Böbbi acknowledged that it would be stupid to do only one song with this fine accompaniment.
So the string ensemble took their seats again for two more nine-minute epics of breathtaking beauty: “Með griðungum” from Með vættum and of course Skálmöld’s signature hymn “Kvaðning”. In Akureyri the audience had sat in quiet suspense while the string section accompanied Þráinn’s guitar melody during the calm middle part, but in Reykjavík the whole theatre oo-oo-ooed the tune along with them and as far as I could see from my front center spot, everyone was standing up through the whole song. Probably even the President of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who attended the show together with his daughter and afterwards posed for a photo with the band like any other fan. There are certain things I love about Iceland…
Photos: Tina Solda – more pics here