Everyone of us has a few sensible habits, but planning more than a few weeks into the future is certainly not one of mine. Yet when Midgardsblot announced its first four bands for 2016, Norwegian Air had my money within less than an hour. Almost eight months in advance, yes, but that first announcement already made it clear that I would not want to be anywhere else within the known universe on that particular weekend in August, and as time progressed towards summer, the line-up only continued to get better.
Much as I was looking forward to the festival, however, some of the discussions in the related Facebook group (which otherwise cannot be praised enough for its helpfulness and friendly spirit) filled me with apprehension: with so many people apparently coming for the viking re-enactment rather than for the bands, wouldn’t a simple metalhead like me – dressed in band t-shirts, drinking my beer straight from the can rather than from a proper horn, and bearing no weapon other than my camera – end up feeling a complete outsider?
Fortunately these doubts proved unfounded. By the time we had pitched our tent on the beautiful seaside campground, a grove of old trees right next to the viking age grave mounds outside the small village of Borre, my friend and I already felt at home. The festival stage itself was a 10- to 15-minute walk away, on the far side of the Midgard exhibition centre and next to the enormous Gildehallen. The painstakingly detailed reconstruction of the viking-age longhouse that used to be on the grounds was the true heart of the event, but the big main stage was right next to it. The opening ritual on Thursday (read: Thor’s Day) took place in the yard flanked by the two and was performed by the shaman duo Folket Bortafor Nordavinden, who also provided some of the musical entertainment inside the hall over the weekend. Admittedly, the ceremony was a bit too New-Age-meets-LARP for my taste, but sure enough I took part and offered some blood to the old gods (not my own, and no idea if it was real) as well as some beer for good measure (my own, definitely real). Unfortunately we neglected to repeat the sacrifice on the following evening, otherwise the gods might have spared us the rain on Saturday.
The first “proper” festival day was Friday, which for the most part obviously had the blessing of the Æsir. In the glorious morning sunshine I first took a bath in the sea (there would have been free showers in the gym somewhere on the other side of the village, but with the beach right next to the campground I simply couldn’t be bothered to walk) and then participated in some viking-style exercises…
(photo by Christina Dimitrova)
…before sitting down in the auditorium of the Midgard Centre for the academic part of the festival. The lecture about Norse culture in Norwegian black metal didn’t really include any new information for me, but the following panel discussion with festival organizer Runa, Enslaved mastermind Ivar and two researchers was as interesting as it was fun.
Trollfest – more pics here
Fun was also what Trollfest was all about, the first band I saw on the main stage, but to call them interesting would be stretching the limits of the term as far as I’m concerned. Anyway they were mostly done by the time I arrived and I spent the remainder of their set standing in line at the bar. The day’s first beer was accompanied by a viking melée in front of the stage, with berserkers and shield maidens clashing happily until only one warrior was left standing.
Meanwhile the stage itself was set up for another demonstration of viking power, but this one involved only winners. Skálmöld are one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, which is attributable to the infectious quality of their songs as much as to the endless amount of positive energy radiated by the band members themselves. The set consisted only of old material, but each album was given a fairly equal share. To be honest, I had very much hoped to hear something from the upcoming longplayer – if not the thematically appropriate “Miðgarður”, then at least the single “Niðavellir” – but the band had come without keyboardist Gunnar and his stand-in, Snæbjörn’s and Baldur’s sister Helga, had jumped on board at too short notice to learn the new songs. Lack of those notwithstanding the gig was my personal highlight of the festival, and I’m all the more eagerly looking forward to their upcoming club gigs.
Skálmöld – more pics here
After Skálmöld’s feast of melodies, served with three guitars (plus keyboard) and six voices, any duo would have had a tough job making an impression, and even the legendary Inquisition didn’t quite succeed. Not meaning to slight their performance, though – they played a tight gig and sounded a good deal more massive than they looked. But there are natural limits to what you can do on one guitar and a drumkit, and after a while I found them a bit too repetitive for my taste.
Inquisition – more pics here
Repetitive is probably the last thing anyone would say about Enslaved, but on this occasion they limited themselves: in celebration of their 25th anniversary, the band played almost exclusively songs from their early years all the way back to “Allfǫðr Oðinn” from their first EP. A nice gift to their longest-standing fans, although I am first and foremostly a fan of their more recent material was glad that at least the first two albums made by the present-day (and in my eyes definitive) line-up, “Isa” and “Ruun”, were represented in the setlist. But despite having preferred a different song selection I thoroughly enjoyed the gig, and not only for musical reasons.
Enslaved – more pics here
After an intermission of approximately an hour, the Enslaved guys returned to the stage, but this time together with their colleagues from Wardruna. Together the large ensemble performed Skuggsjá, the one-hour piece Ivar of Enslaved and Einar of Wardruna had composed for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution in 2014 and released as an album this summer. I had seen Skuggsjá at Roadburn last year and found it immediately fascinating, but experiencing the performance at this utterly fitting location with its perfect surroundings under the night sky framed by high trees and the magnificent silhouette of Gildehallen was something entirely different. Dreamlike and utterly captivating, in one word magical.
Skuggsjá – more pics here
The evening ended around the large campfire on the lawn between the beach and the campground, just like the night before. I don’t recall details of the conversation, but the group assembled was large and merry, with a notable diversity of nations represented and spirits consumed. Nevertheless I was comparatively fit in the morning, and when I noticed the Midgardsblot crew’s plea on Facebook that people should use cash at the bar to speed up beer sales, I decided to take the somewhat dangerous walk (the streets of rural Norway are not exactly well equipped with sidewalks) down to the village and look for an ATM. Too bad there wasn’t any, and the “banking cashier” at the supermarket didn’t accept my Finnish card. In the end I paid my beer in plastic as usual, but apparently other people had been able to heed the appeal, for the lines at the bars seemed indeed somewhat shorter than before.
Before entering the actual festival area I spent some time in the adjacent viking village, which is a fairly essential element of Midgardsblot. Most of it consisted of market tents selling all sorts of handmade goodies from soap and sweets to kettles and musical instruments, whereas the western corner was reserved for socializing and battle training.
Blot – more pics here
But back to the musical portion of the day, which in my case started with two representatives of classical Norwegian black metal. The first one, Blot, was the more melodic of the two and easily my preferred alternative if I had to pick one, but local heroes Kirkebrann stood their ground solidly as well despite sounding less polished – or maybe exactly because of that.
Kirkebrann – more pics here
I skipped the latter half of Kirkebrann’s set to catch Ivar Bjørnson’s clinic inside Gildehallen, where the Enslaved guitarist shared fond memories of his early stages as a songwriter. The man is not only an exceptional composer but also a gifted storyteller, and I found myself wishing he’d keep his riff demonstrations more concise and dedicate more time to his recollections. All too soon his time was up, cut short by the first notes of the next band on the stage outside.
The overlap was slightly annoying, as this was the one act of the day I had been anticipating the most, but fortunately I only missed the first couple of minutes or so. The band in question was Hamferð, whose elegant suits stood no less out from the general mix of styles at Midgardsblot than their slow but highly intense melodic doom. I simply love this band, and given the scarcity of their appearances outside of the Faroe Islands it is incomprehensible to me that they were only granted a half-hour slot. Glad to say they made the most of it though. Each of the four songs was a gem of cathartic beauty, most of all the closer “Harra Guð títt dýra navn og æra”. A late 17th-century psalm may seem an unlikely choice for a pagan-minded festival, but the sense of transcience evoked by this song is universal and the interplay of sadness and consolation conveyed by its melody triggers emotions more ancient than any religion. Not to mention the goosebumps.
Hamferð – more pics here
After Hamferð, Månegarm sounded like pure party pop, but someone in the upper realm apparently was not in the mood for it and spoiled the fun with a mighty splash from the heavenly bucket. On the upside, Saturday afternoon was one of the rare moments when the bar inside Gildehallen actually had mead on offer, so a good excuse for going inside to sit by the fire was ready at hand. Yes, you read correctly – right in the middle of the wooden building was an open fireplace, but the hall was so high and wide that local safety authorities apparently had found no more reason for disapproval than the builders of the original version back in the old days.
Månegarm – more pics here
Melechesh were a bit more fortunate with the weather, and their energetic set was soon rewarded with a proper viking-style moshpit. No swords or axes involved as far as I could see, but helmets and chain mail were surely put to the test. As for the band itself, I still haven’t quite made up my mind about them. More of those kebab melodies in the guitar department and some variety on the vocal side would place them right on my list of favorites, but as it is, they’re not exciting enough for me to watch an entire gig.
Melechesh – more pics here
Much more up my alley were Tsjuder, whom I had seen for the first time ever at Tuska in July and been very much looking forward to seeing again. Having a longer history under their belt than the day’s earlier black metal acts combined, the trio didn’t hesitate to show the minor princes of darkness who owns the Daemon Throne. Furthermore they sounded a whole lot better than at Tuska, where they had played on the new tent stage which had been plagued by muddy sound for most of the weekend. On the other hand the sheltering tent roof was sorely missed at Midgardsblot, as the rain had again set in with full force. Luckily I was able to find a spot under the eaves of the great hall from which I enjoyed a good view of the stage without getting wet, so no complaints on my behalf.
Tsjuder – more pics here
Too bad that spot was gone after I left it during the intermission before the headliner, and much as I would have liked to see Wardruna, I wasn’t properly dressed for the incessant downpour that continued during the entire gig. Like many others, I tried to watch from the door of the hall, but soon I gave up and went back inside to sit with friends and listen to some true Norwegian drinking songs. Which might have been closer to the typical viking evening entertainment anyway, in addition to being a perfect closer for a festival that gloriously accomplished the rare feat of being grand and cozy at the same time. I hope Midgardsblot will never get spoiled by growing too big and commercial, although the bar staff at Gildehallen might want to stock more mead next year. At least enough to sacrifice to the weather gods on each day…
Photos: Tina Solda (except where otherwise indicated) – More band pics here