The third and final edition of Oration has drawn to a close. No other festival I’ve ever attended has come close to achieving what Oration has over the past few years. The links between the festival itself and the rising tide of Icelandic black metal run deep: the festival is organised by Stephen Lockhart, who records and produces most of these bands in his studio, and who plays in a number of them himself, including Rebirth of Nefast. Oration brings these bands together under one roof (or, in this year’s case, two) for three evenings of the most exciting, challenging black/death metal anywhere on the planet. The venue for the first two nights was Húrra, a small bar in the centre of Reykjavik, but unquestionably one of the best I’ve seen. Húrra has a capacity of around 160 and an excellent sound system, and the dimly lit central room benefits from the use of candles, incense and the like by many bands which creates a palpable atmosphere which can’t help but draw you in. it’s a dark, intimate venue, perfect for this celebration of obscure and occult black metal.
The final day was at the Listasafn Reykjavikur (Reykjavik Art Musem), a larger venue but with a better view of the bands. The beer in Iceland is universally eye-wateringly expensive, so there was no risk of any drunken foolery during sets: just the bands and a crowd of passionate music fans crammed into a small room. I also managed to see nearly every band that performed, the only exception being Virus, who performed until nearly 1AM and I was just too exhausted and plagued with back-pain to stay that long unfortunately. As a result though, I can speak to the performances of nearly every single band at the festival.
The festival was spread out over three evenings, and I want to take the time to really talk about each band individually, because they’re all so worth highlighting, so I’ll be publishing my review of Oration MMXVIII in three parts, one for each day.
Day 1: NYIÞ, Naðra, Auðn, Asagraum, Sinmara, Aluk Todolo
Day one kicked off with the eclectic and disturbing Icelandic group NYIÞ, who perform what I can only describe as ‘nightmare music’. Burning incense, candles and skulls adorn a table placed before the audience, while the musicians are garbed in anonymous clothing and black balaclavas. The unholy cacoghany of noise this band conjure out of the abyss is truly disturbing, and I mean that in a very real way: To witness a NYIÞ performance is to have someone reach into the darkest depths of the human psyche and represent it in musical form. The use of accordian, cello, violin, distortion, and keyboards is totally unorthodox, creating impossible and unholy screeching and droning sounds, the nightmarish proceedings building to a bloodcurdling crescendo. The occult undertones were evident, from the reading of unintelligible verses from a black book to the vocalist’s seizure on the floor and the deeply disturbing music itself. It was a thrilling start to the evening, and perfectly set the tone for the rest of the proceedings.
Next up were Naðra, a band which evidently many of us had been looking forward to. Their set was electrifying, as indebted to the raw, confrontational nature of punk as it is to their Norwegian black metal forefathers, with vocalist Örlygur hurling himself around the stage like a madman screaming blood and thunder, pausing infrequently only to raise a goblet of blood with which to splatter the crowd’s faces. Their chaotic but strangely melodic and totally unorthodox approach to black metal, with a significant emphasis on technical lead guitar melodies, and their furious rendition of the exhilirating and totally insane ‘Forn’ from their 2016 EP ‘Form’ was a total highlight of the evening for me. The band have phenomenal stage presence, the sound mix was solid, and their murderous, chaotic rage comes through even more clearly than on the record. Absolutely not a band to miss.
Auðn had their work cut out for them following a band like Naðra, but they rose to the occasion and delivered a set of blistering emotional intensity. Their approach to atmospheric black metal sets them a little at odds with the more overtly abrasive and dissonant approach of much of the rest of Iceland’s metal scene, and perhaps has more in common with a band like Winterfylleth, but ultimately they didn’t sound remotely out of place on the bill. And their set was so tightly performed, and their music of such intensity and genuine feeling, that the entire audience got swept away into Auðn’s bleak world. The songs from their recent album “Farvegir fyrndar” sounded incredible, but for me it was their perormance of “Þjáning Heillar Þjóðar” which really stood out. The bass was mixed perfectly and adds so much to the song, and the moment when the acoustic guitars cut out to be replaced by the crushing waves of distorted black metal riffs and tortured howls is one of those moments that stays with you long after the song comes to a close. The song’s breathtaking climax had the audience totally enraptured, a mass of bobbing heads, whirling hair and black metal claws extended towards the stage. Auðn walk their own path and are all the better for it.
I’ll admit up-front that before their performance at this festival, I had never encountered or listened to Asagraum. Nonetheless, I went in with high expectations given the quality of bands so far, and man, they more than met those high expectations. Asagraum are Dutch band that play a style of black metal that’s at once very orthodox and traditional but also indebted to more recent developments in the genre, particularly the use of dissonance to create unholy riffs and melodies. Their set was a brutal display of black metal savagery from start to finish, and I found myself completely won over from the early, dissonant notes and pounding drums of ‘Transformation’. The frontwomen owned the stage, all corpsepaint and grim scowls. It might seem an odd comparison, but at times their raw shrieks and howls and the jarring, eerie guitarwork reminded me of a much nastier, more overtly Satanic version of Yellow Eyes, or Wolves in the Throne Room at their very rawest and most ferocious. Perhaps that is an odd comparison, Asagraum are much more focused on brutality and Satan-worship; nonetheless, the eerie chords and dissonant riffs over battering percussion lead to a fantastic sound. I fucking loved it, and highly recommend readers check out and support this underrated band.
Up next were the band I had been most anticipating up to this point: Sinmara. I’m a totally unrepentant fan of the band: their 2014 album “Aphotic Womb” remains one of my top five albums of all time, and I’ve been enthusiastically writing about the band since about 2013. I saw them live at last year’s Oration festival, but I was eager to hear the new songs from ‘Within the Weaves of Infinity’ live for the first time. To my joy, they opened with ‘Mountains of Quivering Bones’, which is one of my favourite black metal songs of all time (certainly up there with Svartidauði’s “Psychoactive Sacraments”), a crushing, psychedelic-inflected 10-minute black metal opus which slowly reaches one of the most breathtaking crescendos in black metal. Their shouded onstage persona and dim lights only added to the sense of ominous mystery and atmosphere, and the songs from their latest EP sounded stunning live. The band’s ability to weaponise dissonance in a way which delivers melody in an abrasive, brutal package is uncanny; drummer Bjarni Einarsson is a beast behind the kit; and vocalist Ólafur Guðjónsson (also of Almyrkvi) is one of the most commanding vocalists in the genre, his hoarse, cracked howls and growls inflecting emotion and passion in a compelling way. Although the mix buried the guitars at a few points, Sinmara were an absolute morbid delight to behold, and are still for me the standout band of the Icelandic black metal scene.
By this point I was totally exhausted, but I stuck around to hear Aluk Todolo‘s set, as they remain one of the most interesting and unique bands in black metal. Although, they’re not really black metal at all – they’re as influenced by krautrock and psychedelic rock as they are by black metal, and play without any vocals. But these influences are so deftly woven together that the end-result is something very, very special. To see Aluk Todolo perform live is to be invited to take part in a kind of meditative ritual as the band’s hypnotic, noisy guitar lines, rumbling bass, and stunningly diverse percussion transport you to another plane of existence. Indeed, drummer Antoine Hadjioannou appeared to be in a trance-like state himself, demonstrating almost inhuman stamina in his role behind the drums. A single lightbulb dangled before the stage, the brightness of which seemed to be connected to the notes played by guitarist Manuel Göttsching, flickering and glowing in sync with the guitarwork. It was a really hypnotic performance and a great way to close the first night of Oration MMXVIII.
Thus concludes Day 1 of Oration MMXVIII. The reviews of the second and third days will be published in the coming week to allow readers time to read, digest and explore the bands discussed so far.