Borre, Norway, August 16 – 19, 2023
To lovers of viking and pagan metal, Midgardsblot hardly needs any introduction anymore, but the four-day spectacle in the pictoreque village of Borre in southeastern Norway is much more than “just” a metal festival – albeit a great one as such. The choice selection of bands representing a wide range of subgenres within the metal spectrum is augmented by a colorful variety of folk and experimental artists, not to forget the extensive accompanying program: theater, seminars, tattoo convention, a large viking village with a versatile handicraft fair – and this year, even a viking ship.
The focal point of it all is still, of course, the music. The main stage was opened by my Helsinki homeboys Finntroll, who due to airport hassles and heavy road traffic started with some delay and therefore had less time than planned. If anything, their intensity was heightened by these circumstances, as the setlist had to be compressed into a tight-knit hit parade which grabbed the crowd from start to finish.
The next two artists, Lili Refrain and Sylvaine, offered a striking visual contrast between dark and light while sharing a similar musical background as solo projects by innovative multi-instrumentalists playing on extremes. Lili Refrain commanded the stage all by herself, armed with guitars, synthesizers, loopers, a huge floor tom and a mesmerizing voice reminiscent of the legendary Diamanda Galas. Much of the material was from the latest album Mana, which Lili introduced as “a celebration of energy” – and her delivery didn’t leave the slightest doubt about that.
Sylvaine is known as a one-woman project as well, but on stage Kathrine Shepard was accompanied by a full band, giving a rockier edge to the performance which shifted effortlessly between ethereal dreaminess and black metal brutality. Sylvaine had been a familiar name to me since around the time of Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, which had been the first album by a female artist to be nominated for a Norwegian grammy in the Metal category, but this was my first live encounter and quite impressive.
The main act of the first day was Kampfar, who had already blown me away on their first-ever Finnish gig earlier this year and whose albums have been regulars on my turntable in recent months. But experiencing them on their hometurf surrounded by nature and accentuated by pyrotechnics was another dimension yet, and the ecstatic abandon of vocalist Dolk in particular further embellished the purifying power of their music. Glorious!
Thursday started with local newcomers Vargvrede, whose energetic thrash metal left a posive first impression and who didn’t forget to congratulate “our youngest fan” who turned ten that day.
One of the things that make Midgardsblot such a lovable festival is its family-friendly atmosphere that literally welcomes all ages. There were the scores of kids all over the place – obviously having a great time amidst the viking warriors and metalheads – and the youngest of them had been born this year.
On the other hand there were also many senior citizens in the audience. The lovely white-haired lady I first spotted during the Nordjevel gig and late at night had the honor to briefly chat with by the fire turned out to be 92 years old, known fondly by the locals as Grandma Ruth. And yes, she attended the entire festival – a true role model!
My other new discoveries of the day besides Vargvrede were Wulfaz and Sowulo. The most memorable about the former is that the lead vocals were sung by the drummer, but although no song in particular stuck to my mind, their groovy black metal was quite contagious.
The latter, a Dutch ensemble that combined medieval and classical instruments, took listeners back in time and slowed down the pace. The interplay of the two percussionists nevertheless kept my toes in motion and the songs, which by the way are in the Anglo-Saxon language, were composed with a refined sense of dramatic tension.
Iotunn was the newcomer I had been most excited about to finally see live, and if anything, they even exceeded my high expectations. The quintet was formed by Danish brothers Jens and Jesper Gräs, who managed to enlist the amazing Jón Aldará – my favorite male singer if I were forced to name one – and released a stunning debut album in the midst of the pandemic. While Iotunn’s progressive and highly melodic death metal sounds great on my home stereo and helped to make those gig-less times a bit more bearable, a live setting is where it truly belongs – and the little Kaupangr stage next to the Viking village seemed almost too small for its cosmic dimensions.
Nordjevel did not fall short of expectations either and delivered one of the festival’s most power-charged sets, embellished by constant pyrotechnics and the memorable performance of vocalist Doedsadmiral, who during the show handed out little Norwegian flags to the audience. They, too, are comparatively new to the scene and I hadn’t witnessed them before, so I’m happy to see them freshly confirmed for next year’s Inferno Festival, where the indoor stage might heighten the intensity even more.
Unfortunately I missed the unveiling of the majestic statue of Heimdallur next to the festival grounds by a few minutes, all the more aggravating as it was performed in the presence of Enslaved who had named their latest album after this god.
Said album, however, played a predominant role in their headlining set that evening, and deservedly so. Personally I would have wished for at least one song from their middle period, which is still their “definite” era for me, but even without such favor granted it was an excellent show, one of their best I have seen so far. The clean vocal parts were evenly split between Grutle, keyboarder Hakon Vinje and drummer Iver Sandøy, and Neurosis vocalist Steve Von Till joined the band for a guest performance on “Heimdal”. The closer, “Allfǫðr Oðinn”, harkened back to the band’s very beginnings and yet fit seamlessly into the whole, corroborating the timelessness inherent in the adventurous spirit of Enslaved.
Friday morning was sunny and hot, so I started the day with a refreshing bath in the fjord next to the campground – with its lush trees the most beautiful festival campsite I know, and I was grateful to notice that the quiet zone was actually respected – and a picnic on the shore, as well as getting to know some fellow campers.
The first band were folk rockers Gangar, whose saxophone seemed to be the most exotic instrument in the context of this festival. They were a lot of fun to watch, and even sing along to in case of the children’s song “Har du vondt i magen”.
Norwegian karaoke was also offered by Frigg’s Døttre, a medieval style quartet who played on the small side stage near the main bar on three of four days and would recruit a helper from the audience to hold up a huge blanket with lyrics to sing along.
While exploring the viking village and shopping at the merch tent, I also saw a bit of Eternity, another promising name from the ever-thriving Norwegian black metal underground. A dark club might be the most fitting surrounding for this band, but of course nobody was complaining about the gleaming sunlight that Norway hadn’t exactly been blessed with earlier this month.
After taking my vinyl and shirt purchases back to camp, I returned in time for a musical theater performance inside the great Gildehallen. The 33 m long feasting hall had been reconstructed some ten years ago, in painstaking detail using original building techniques, according to archeological findings at this site, which even before the Viking Age had been used for upper-class burials and is characterized by its almost 30 ancient grave mounds. The interior of the hall is even more splendid now than I remembered it from my previous visit back in 2016, when the huge carved pillars had not yet been painted. The play performed on its stage was titled Skjebnetråder and based on the tragic story of a legendary local king and his daughter.
Legendary is also a fitting attribute for the next band: Einherjer, who celebrated their 30-year anniversary with two different sets that together formed my personal highlight of the entire festival. This first one was the more conventional of them, out on the main stage under the evening sky, but nevertheless very special, as the majority of songs had been played extremely seldom or never at all before. Among the rarities were gems like “Av oss for oss” and even “Aurora Borealis”, Einherjer’s first demo song from 1994. The crystal clear sound completed the aural feast and gave also the two new members opportunity to shine, especially Tom Enge’s heroic clean vocals.
After Einherjer I would have been ready to call it a day, and a perfect one at that, but there were still two more significant acts left. Blackbraid attracted such a huge crowd that I didn’t even try to get close to the stage, and although I heard afterwards that the band had caused some uproar behind the scenes (apparently an inebriated member declined to follow security orders, which after all don’t make much of a distinction between paid artists and paying guests), but the show itself was impressive and my only minor complaint was that the flute was not loud enough in the mix.
The evening closed with Týr, a long-standing favorite of mine who never disappoint. The set was well-balanced between traditional Faroese ballads and rockier songs, with plenty of sing-along material among both. In addition, they are always a pleasure to watch on stage and singer Heri Joensen is excellent at communicating with the audience, in the local vernacular just like the last time I saw them – which had been in Iceland.
On the last festival day, the running order was slightly disbalanced from my point of view, as it started with the unparalleled top act and anything after that was just a bonus, so to speak. Of course I’m talking about Einherjer’s second set on the intimate Gildehallen stage, with a setlist at least equally exclusive as the night before and featuring a most special guest on stage: renowned album cover artist Costin Chioreanu, who started out with a blank canvas at the beginning of the show and created a glorious painting in the course of it. Much of the time his brush strokes were exactly in sync with the beat, which made it even more fascinating to watch the progress of his work. A perfect symbiosis of music and visual art, and one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever witnessed.
The afternoon programme comprised three acts that all could be loosely characterized as folk artists, yet differed greatly from each other. Closest to being a folk music ensemble in the common understanding of the term were Garmarna, whose refined ballads evoked the spirit of a Swedish midsummer night and inspired a nearby couple to a romantic dance right in front of the stage.
In comparison, Mari Boine‘s shamanic songs and joiks sounded otherworldly and mysterious, both simple and immensely powerful. The legendary Sámi artist was accompanied by a full band, but the other musicians seemed hardly more than a discreet backdrop to her commanding stage presence, hypnotic drumming and unique voice.
Between self-evident main stage acts Garmarna and Boine I went over to the smaller one to catch Mío, which turned out to be the surprise find of the day. A true newcomer, the Oslo-based sextet had only a few weeks earlier released its debut album, but took to the stage like they had never done anything else. Their bold mixture of elements ranging from Norwegian folk to punk, progressive rock and even jazz sounded utterly fresh and original, and the powerful vocals and total physical abandon of singer Dionisia Fjelldalen was rewarded by very active participation from the audience. Top recommendation!
My pre-festival weather worries fueled by the recent massive rain and floods in many parts of Norway had fortunately proved unfounded for almost the entire weekend, but just when Naglfar started, so did the rain.
I had been looking forward to them but hardly made it though the first song before I fled towards the safety of Bar Striga, a huge round and most welcoming tent at the edge of the viking village that also hosted afterparties and mead tastings. Talking about drinks, the one thing at Midgardsblot that ought to be rectified in the future is the refund system which this year didn’t quite work: a “deposit” of 20 NOK was charged for the sturdy plastic cups, but the sum wasn’t reimbursed to the customer’s card (or phone) upon returning the empty cup. Here in Finland this would be unthinkable and presumably illegal, as a deposit by definition is a borrowed amount and not an actual payment. In addition, withholding the refund counteracts the environmental aspect that was cited as its very justification: not getting their money back reduces people’s motivation to clean up after themselves, thereby causing unnecessary trash and adding to the workload of the volunteers. The drink prices as such were fair, though – Norway has a reputation for expensive alcohol, but given the present currency rate I didn’t pay more per beer than at this summer’s Finnish festivals.
Blessedly, the rain stopped in time for Tsjuder. The dark clouds were nowhere gone, but for a while they contented themselves with providing an appropriately sinister setting for the trio’s tight and brutal set, which was fueled by this summer’s excellent new album. The mercyless onslaught was never even interrupted for as much as a word to the audience. A surprisingly large part of the vocals was handled by Draugluin, but this didn’t result in any noticeable change to the overall sound as his voice is fairly similar to Nag’s.
It was Mortiis‘ job to slow things down towards the end of the festival, a bit too much for my taste though. Darkwave and droning synthesizers have never been my thing, and while I can acknowlege the captivating aspect and occasional epicness of Mortiis’ brooding soundscapes, I soon found myself drawn back to the merriment of aforementioned Striga tent.
The last band was My Dying Bride, who may have not been the most obvious choice style-wise but proved a worthy closer, as their haunting melodies and ethereal melancholy have a universal appeal and the rarity of their live appearances nowadays made the opportunity of seeing them again at long last even more precious.
There was some rainfall during their set but not enough to spill the fascination – only afterwards, during the final beach bonfire of the weekend, it all of a sudden started to pour so heavily that I gave up and went to sleep to the soothing noise of raindrops on my tent, happy and grateful after four days of some of my favorite music immersed in historic surroundings, opulent nature and delightful company. I sincerely hope it will be less than seven years until my next return…