Three years ago, a new festival saw the light of day in the heart of Iceland’s capital. It was called Reykjavík Deathfest and began as a humble one-day event with six bands but grew with each year. In 2018, it already was a three-day party with acts from three continents, and for this year’s edition, the organizers decided to also expand the selection of genres. To reflect this diversification, the name was changed to Reykjavík Metalfest. What has not grown over time is the venue, Gaukurinn, a well-established but rather small club upstairs in an old house in the middle of the town. Sweat and intimacy guaranteed!
As if to prove that it had no intention of abandoning its roots, the festival kicked off on Thursday evening with Hubris, who had already played at the first and second Deathfest. As a spin-off of black metal eminence Auðn who would close the festivities a couple of nights later, they also provided a good example of both how close-knit the Icelandic metal scene is and how versatile many of its members are. A forceful opening act with a climactic build-up towards the end.
Space black metallers Almyrkvi slowed things down for a little while, but although the name translates into Total Eclipse, it sure wasn’t their fault that my camera began showing signs of the same during their set. It had already started to act weirdly during Hubris and despite several factory resets over the course of the weekend it continued to produce more moments of frustration than usable pictures. For general purposes of illustration I’m including some photos with this report anyway, but I apologize for their obvious lack of professional quality.
Almyrkvi had been my most anticipated band of the first evening but turned out to be a just bit too static to really keep me on my toes. Contrast was just around the corner, though, as grindcore veterans Forgarður Helvítis were next and didn’t take long to get the moshpit churning. Fast, unpolished and aggressive, they infused a healthy dose of punk into the evening’s program and vocalist Siggi in particular was an irresistible bundle of energy.
The last show of the evening was a quite special one. Potentiam, who were pioneers of black metal in Iceland long before “Icelandic Black Metal” became a trademark of international renown, played their debut Bálsýn in full. The show marked the 20th anniversary of this classic album and was the band’s first in more than half a decade. Maybe not a reunion in the true sense of the word – as far as I know Potentiam never officially broke up and have had a new album in the works for a long time, but main men Eldur and Forn have been busy with Katla and Kontinuum, respectively – but definitely the first time this album was played live in its entirety. Yes, it still sounds good, and the declarative clean vocals would have made it stand out from the rest of the night even without its legendary status.
The second day started again with a contrasting pair of up-tempo death followed by reflective black metal, this time in the form of Psyclosarin from the US and local Andavald. The latter were closer to my general taste but the former sounded more fun. However, I didn’t see much of either, mostly because I needed to get me something to eat. Not that this circumstance caused any discomfort, as nested inside the venue is nowadays a small diner named Veganæs. Since the place was already quite crowded, the sandwich I ordered took a while and my friend’s burger even longer, but it was well worth the wait. Warmly recommended!
It sure was a good idea to gather some energy before the next two bands, which I had to see from up front. The first of them was Beneath, whose set was exceptional because vocalist Benedikt hadn’t been able to make it and his slot was filled by original singer Gísli. Who also happens to be a part of the festival’s organizing team, which may in part explain why Beneath were almost the only band that was blessed with enough stage lighting for even my poor sick little camera to capture a few decent shots (at least after yet another cold reset). And for myself to get a good view of the triple six-string wizardry – yes, I’m also referring to bassist Maddi. He worked double shift this weekend as well, having also played in Forgarður Helvítis the night before.
The weekend wasn’t short of highlights, but my top favorite was Hamferð. I’ve been a fan of this band since the release of their first full-length half a dozen years ago but had only seen them a couple of times before. Jón Aldará is probably the best singer I’ve ever heard, and though I’ve seen him several times with his other band Barren Earth, it is Hamferð where he is truly in his element. I had wondered a bit whether it would be a good idea to schedule their slow doom right after the tech-death onslaught served by Beneath but indeed it was – Hamferð could feed off the intensity that was already in the air but added another layer of depth and melancholy beauty that enthralled the audience from the first note. During the soft passages for example in “Frosthvarv”, you could have heard a needle drop, although the house was packed and beer consumption at a high level.
Next on stage were Benighted from France who raised the tempo again and were no less well received by the crowd, but I had to take a break at that point and get some fresh air. Well, the freshness of it was arguable, as the balcony of Gaukurinn is the club’s designated smoking area. But it was less hot than inside and actually possible to talk to people without shouting, which was all I craved at that moment. And since we so fortunately happened to be in Iceland rather than back home in Finland, there were absolutely no restrictions on drinking alcohol in the smoking zone. Takk fyrir.
Speaking of Finland, that’s also where the next act came from (and, as it turned out, a few other fans in the room). When I last saw Demilich in Helsinki a couple of years ago, the venue had been even smaller and no chance to get near the stage, but this time I made sure to be in the front row, not minding the occasional elbow in the back from the moshpit. Similar to Potentiam, Demilich also had an anniversary to celebrate, with the small difference that the album in question was even older and the only one the death metal outfit from Kuopio had ever made. In the 25 years since the release of Nespithe, Demilich have managed to break up and reform several times but sound as fresh as back in the day, read: fresh from the grave. If Antti Boman’s voice ever left that grave in the first place.
Friday’s headliner was Sinmara, who recently released the excellent new album Hvísl stjarnanna. Another band I had really looked forward to seeing again, but by the time they got on stage well after midnight I was so tired that I no longer managed to consciously follow the music and simply let it flow through me like an infinite stream of sound. Which in this case was after all perhaps not too far from its original purpose.
On Saturday evening Gaukurinn was one of the few place in the country where no TV was running, but otherwise Eurovision and particularly Iceland’s own candidate Hatari (who are well respected in the metal scene and left a strong mark on the song contest, which I otherwise could hardly care less about) seemed omnipresent this weekend. Even some bus stop announcements were modified accordingly, not to mention that supermarkets sold BDSM accessories along with snacks and drinks – some nations clearly know more about party marketing than others, at least I don’t remember Lordi masks being sold at Finnish grocery stores back in the day.
But back to Reykjavík Metalfest, the final evening of which started with Heift. They offered a quick serving of fiercely spiteful black metal and I wouldn’t have minded to listen to them a bit longer, but since they have only just released one EP on Bandcamp, more material was simply not available at this stage of investigation.
Damim were a completely new name for me but not one I’m likely to return to, not really my taste and especially the vocals got quickly on my nerves. Whoredom Rife, on the other hand, was right up my alley – had never seen them before either and forgotten to check out before the weekend, but the five Norwegians presented pagan black metal in the best of traditions, relentless and uncompromising. Gotta check out more of them and perhaps try to catch them on their Baltic tour with Behemoth in autumn.
I took a break during Svart Crown but totally enjoyed Svartidauði whose recently released Revelations of the Red Sword has been on heavy rotation on my turntable this spring. Although not lacking the desired amount of brutality, their music has a strangely soothing effect on me that made me thankful that they didn’t play as late as Sinmara the night before. On the other hand it was good not to be exhausted already before the next band entered the stage, because that was none other than Napalm Death.
It was a bit surreal to see the British grindcore gods on such a small stage, but the environment only enhanced the spirit. The gig itself was not the only item on their visiting schedule, as Shane Embury would also take part in a Q&A session the following day when the movie Slave to the Grind was shown in a local cinema. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to attend this or any other extracurricular events surrounding the festival but there were plenty: movies, panel discussions, a photo exhibition and a guided tour around the musically relevant sights of Reykjavík. If you’re thinking about attending Reykjavík Metalfest 2020 but don’t know what you should do with your time between shows, I really don’t think you’ll have to worry.
For all I could see, not only the fans were taken well care of during the weekend but also the artists. Without doubt one of the hardest working crew members was Aðalsteinn Magnússon, who assisted the bands both on and offstage in addition to playing himself in Hubris, Heift and last but absolutely not least Auðn. I’m not denying the possibility that they were assigned the headlining spot partly for organizational reasons, but nevertheless it was fully deserved. The hauntingly poetic black metal of their two albums has made them one of the foremost ambassadors of the scene, and they have been busy touring all over Europe for the last couple of years. Their dramatic performance made them the perfect conclusion for this versatile yet compact, extremely friendly and most highly recommended little festival.