Sunday, March 22, 2015

Icelandic Black Metal: The Dissonant Branch


Breathtaking glaciers, vast tundra, and stark lava fields; Iceland’s landscape is remarkable and unparalleled. This fascinating country has a population of only around 325,000, but it is also home to an unparalleled metal scene. Over 50 black metal bands, with a staggering 30 of them currently active according to the Metal Archives. While it’s never fair to generalize an entire country’s music scene, there is a fascinating dissonant subset of Icelandic black metal. These bands each have a chaotic take on the genre, and while having individual approaches, they are also often compared to one another.

Rather than lumping the bands all together or even tackling each individually, this article will delve into the dissonant Icelandic black metal scene as a whole. In addition to background information, we'll also have previews of how some of the bands feel about their influences, their language, and their environment. Part of this will include looking at data take from the Metal Archives, band websites, and pulling quotes from past interviews. Additionally, I conducted three standalone interviews with the following bands: Mannveira, Wormlust, and Azoic.

So, who are some of the dissonant Icelandic black metal bands? Here are the first that come to mind, a diverse crowd for sure, but not an exhaustive list:

Top Row: Svartidauði, Carpe Noctem, Wormlust
Middle Row: Azoic, Mannveira, Vansköpun
Bottom Row: Naðra, Sinmara, Misþyrming
Lonely Row: Nornahetta

Perhaps the most well known bands among this scene are Svartidauði, Carpe Noctem, and Wormlust. After that, the risks of leaving out bands increases, but it is safe to include Sinmara, Naðra, Mannviera, Vansköpun, Nornahetta, and the newest of them all Misþyrming, who have had a meteoric rise in popularity. While Azoic leans very heavily on the death side of black/death metal it’s probably also fair to include that highly dissonant project as well. Keep in mind that this is focusing only on a certain sub-style of black metal, so Icelandic black metal bands like the doomy 〇, the famous Sólstafir, or the relatively traditional Curse or Úrhrak aren’t today’s topic. That said, there are always gray areas (Árstíðir Lífsins for example flirts with some similar sounds) and if there are more bands that fit, I’d be glad to hear about them. While we're name dropping bands, NYIÞ is basically in the same vein of dissonant Icelandic black metal, but without the metal. Worth checking out for anyone who enjoys the ambient sides of these bands.


To start us off with getting an idea for the scene as a whole, here is a timeline of what this particular group of bands has been up to since 2002 when Svartidauði first formed:

This chart doesn’t include splits, compilations, or live albums; but you can see that the bands in this group haven’t been particularly prolific. All in all, there were no full-length albums before 2012, and there are only six in total now, as of March 2015. Despite all of the recent attention and formation of younger bands, you can also see that the roots go fairly far back. Releases under former band names are in parentheses.

Band Member Web

 (This is a diagram only of band member overlaps and is not intended to reflect musical similarities.)

Considering that the island nation has a small population, with about 122,000 of those living in Reykjavik, one might expect a great deal of band member cross-pollination. Looking at the above web, you can get a good impression of how often this has happened and how the band's members connect to one another. With around 30 individuals among these bands between current, former, and session musicians this web strikes me as showing only a small amount of overlap given the close-knit circumstances. Nornahetta has no member information publicized at this time, but considering that they are also a Vánagandr signed band, you might be able to make some educated guesses.

Some points worth noting:
  • Abacination is split up, but everyone listed as “current” in the chart was part of the last known lineup. (Illugi of Mannveira has said that he fairly certain the Abacination demos won't be re-released.)
  • To keep things clean, I’ve ignored name changes, so for example Kristófer is a “former member” of Wormlust, but only by virtue of playing with the band when it was called Wolfheart. 
  • I’ve included H.V Lyngdal as a former member of Vansköpun based on his September 3, 2013 statement in a Puro Ruido interview that Pestuus (formed in 2008) mutated into Vansköpun. 
  • Don't read into the two groups not overlapping. If you were inclined you could connect members of Naðra and Svartidauði through the death metal band Shrine (formerly known as Gone Postal).

Interestingly, you can see from the above web that two labels in particular have a very strong presence in this scene, Vánagandr (an Icelandic label) and Terratur Possessions (a Norwegian label). Carpe Noctem is signed to Code666 (an Aural music subsidiary), Vansköpun to Barghest, and Wormlust to Daemon Worship Productions. Azoic is the only unsigned group of the bunch. 

Vánagandr is run by Dagur and Tómas. As you can see above, both of them are also involved in multiple active bands. Dagur in particular is especially busy, being credited with the mixing work on releases by Mannveira, Naðra, and 〇. Stylistically, Dagur's thumbprints leave a rawer and savage sense of chaos compared to some of the more heavily produced bands.


While Terratur Possessions has a larger overall roster, two of the Icelandic bands there also share a common recording studio: Svartidauði and Sinmara, who have both worked with Studio Emissary, which has worked on recording, mixing, and mastering for many bands. This studio is run by Wann, also known as Stephen Lockhart, who is also heavily involved in making music and is an active member of Sinmara. (See above web). As a trivia note, Wann is originally from Ireland, which is pretty amazing when you consider how much he has contributed to this scene. In contrast to Dagur, Wann's productions are razor sharp and clean, giving breathing room for technical flourishes.

"There was never an option in our minds to have somebody else then Wann handling the whole recording process with us and we will be working with him again in the future." - Svartidauði in a Mortem Zine interview.


When you are talking about any number of musicians, you are going to come across a variety of musical influences. More often than not though, when reading reviews about these bands you'll see a comparison to Deathspell Omega. Now, no matter your opinion on the quality of that band's 2004 release, Si Monumentum Requires Circumspice, it certainly has had a major impact in black metal. For better or worse, the name Deathspell Omega has also become nearly synonymous with dissonance. Just like any comparison though, thinking about a particular band can be useful in a general sense, but becomes less so when you take a deeper look at the scene. While it is ultimately up to each listener to decide whether the comparison is fair or superficial, let's see what some of the bands have to say about their influences:

 We don't really recognize it as 'the French sound', there are some similarities but bands all around the globe are scanning the obscure path of extreme genre mixing. - Azoic when asked about the influence of the French sound in Slaying Tongue, (where the interviewer also lamented that all bands experimenting with dissonance are automatically compared to DSO)
“Svartidauði is Svartidauði” Svartidauði fielding a question in Mortem Zine about constant DSO comparisons. Blunt but understandable.
“...the classic NoEvDia bands from the turn of the century....This particular movement was undeniably a strong influence on Chao and still holds a place in our hearts, although we have widened our horizons a lot since then.” Sinmara's  response to an Andfari inquiry about Orthodox black metal influences.
We are not a single entity, we are five different individuals who each draw from different types of music, art and experiences when making Black Metal. Alexander of Carpe Noctem, when asked about influences generally, noting the collaborative nature of songwriting in a Metal Temple interview. 
Of course, there is a great impact from the artists I enjoy in my music, but I try my best not to imitate anyone and to develop my own sound. Illugi of Mannveira in the Contaminated Tones interview, wrapping up the issue elegantly.
The range of reactions here is unsurprising, but this last quote gets to the real heart of the issue. Most artists want to create their own individual  sound and not be pigeonholed as a clone. What's also important is how this shows that Icelandic black metal, even when looking at only the dissonant variety, isn't a monolith. The bands may have similarities, but is comparing them to any single band without saying anything more nuanced any better than comparing all black metal bands to Darkthrone? At the same time, no band is a special snowflake existing outside of all influences, but there is a real value in recognizing shades. Hell, Azoic, Wormlust, and Svartidauði all have mentioned enjoying the band Swans, which surprisingly may have been referenced more than any other band.


Snorri Sturluson - Icelandic author, believed to have written one of the Sagas

Black metal as we know it today has its roots firmly in Norway. But it isn't commonplace to hear black metal in the Norwegian language, and the majority of the founding bands favored English. In contrast, the Icelandic scene's dissonant branch has made heavy use of the Icelandic language, with more þ's and ð's than you can shake a stick at. (As a side note, many people seem to think these letters are both D's, but they both make "th" type sounds that I have been assured I don't pronounce correctly.) Supposedly Icelandic is quite close to Old Norse, yet you won't find much in terms of Viking-themed metal among these bands.

This got me thinking though. Why do so many Icelandic bands write in Icelandic, especially when so many bands have English lyrics?
"I feel that the lyrics and the atmosphere surrounding [the lyrics] would be completely lost in translation."  - Illgui of Mannveira on why his lyrics are in Icelandic, Contaminated Tones Interview.
"it is my native tongue, so meanings and ideas can be communicated in a personal and direct manner, not hindered by translation into another language" Alexander of Carpe Noctem, in a Metal Temple interview, where he also talked about how Icelandic has phonetic properties that fit well with black metal. 
"How I wrote those particular lyrics was basically untranslatable, I used Nordic compound words that would be incoherent when translated over to anything else..."   - H.V. Lyngdal of Wormlust, an excerpt from a broader discussion, Contaminated Tones Interview.
"The Icelandic tongue fits well to some aspects of what we do and will play a bigger role in the future. Also, it gets exhausting quiet quickly only writing lyrics in your second language and Icelandic does feel more fitting for some parts. ... languages are very different. Expressing emotions can be difficult in your own mother tongue let alone in a second language. So music or art in general can channel emotions or a certain atmosphere cross any language barrier. “Gateways” tries to characterize this, perhaps in a metaphysical way."- Benedikt of Azoic explaining the band's bilingual approach, Contaminated Tones Interview.
While it's only speculation on my part, you have to wonder if living on a relatively linguistically isolated island contributes to these beliefs. So, how many of these bands are singing in Icelandic? Well, in an interview with Blight of Plebians, H.V. Lyngdal of Wormlust noted that Vansköpun inspired him to write lyrics in Icelandic. So, if we put Wormlust in the Icelandic language column and make some educated guesses based off of song titles when lyrics are unpublished, things look like this:


In the world of fine wines and some other high-end food items, there's an idea called terroir, where geography supposedly imputes unique flavor-characteristic into items. Some people expand this disputed concept to almost spiritual levels, believing that flavors can capture the "essence" of a region. Others take this idea and apply it to music, and in a way this a common theme in discussions about Icelandic metal bands. It's almost as if people believe that the extreme geography must have an extreme influence on the music. 

Now don't take the skepticism here as a suggestion of the other extreme, that a person's surroundings and experiences have absolutely no influence on their music. In sum though, does anyone really think that the environment or geology are huge factors of what makes up a person's artistic direction or personality? This is another topic that Icelandic bands have fielded a number of questions about, so here is another sampling of quotes on the topic:
"The Icelandic environment is also definitely something that affects the atmosphere of the music." Dagur of Misþyrming in an interview with noisey.
"It makes sense to a certain degree, the connection between the two maybe isn't that strong, but of course your environment has an effect on you no matter what, so the extremely dark, long and unforgiving winter in Iceland has an effect that we can't deny." Illgui of Mannveira, Contaminated Tones Interview.
"Usually the question is if the landscape is a influence on the music and I believe you are getting to that at another and less obnoxious angle. The answer is yes, every black metal project and band stares into the snowy horizon teary-eyed when they write and play their music. "- H.V. Lyngdal of Wormlust, answering a question about whether being Icelandic influences his music, Contaminated Tones Interview excerpt.
"I’m studying Geology which I got into because my passion for understating our surroundings (the mountains, rivers and volcanoes)."- Benedikt of Azoic, Contaminated Tones Interview. 
I went from initially thinking it was too stupid of a question to ask, to ultimately sitting in surprise while reading Benedikt's response. It goes back to the idea of how it isn't fair to stereotype these bands. Sure, the influence Iceland's geography has on its metal bands it probably overplayed, but you can see a range of responses: explicitly acknowledging a musical influence, accepting an influence in a more abstract sense, humorously mocking the idea, and finally a band actually named after a geological era and created by someone studying geology.

"...yes, every black metal project and band stares into the snowy horizon teary-eyed when they write and play their music"    - H.V. Lyngdal of Wormlust


Listening to, reading/writing about, and interviewing these bands was a really rewarding process. Rather than making this post even longer, the interviews will appear separately over the next couple of days. I encourage everyone who read this to read the full interviews, along with those conducted by other websites, in order to get the full context of what the bands are saying. Links to the Contaminated Tones interviews below:

Mannviera Interview

Wormlust Interview

Azoic Interview

Addendum: Check out Abominor, which a commenter let me know about, and they also released an EP, Opus: Decay, shortly after this article went up. They definitely fit into this style, and the EP was also mixed, mastered, and recorded by Wann at Studio Emissary. 


Callum said...

Funny how you left ABOMINOR out, them being active for much longer than most of the bands you mentioned.
Their material kills, literally.
They only have a demo out, & it has been six years since already, when the hell is that fucking INVICTUS PROD album getting released?

Apteronotus said...

Just checking them out on Facebook now, good stuff so far and definitely fits, thanks for letting me know about them! Looks like their demo had only 13 copies though so I'm not surprised I missed it.

Looks like they are planning an EP titled Opus Decay for a 2015 release, so here's hoping for a wider release.