Monday, 19 March 2012

Looking back: Eistnaflug Festival 2011

Eistnaflug Festival
July 2011
Neskaupstaður, Iceland

A peaceful village alongside a beautifully tranquil fjord is the somewhat unlikely setting for some musical brutality; it’s fair to say that despite a very varied bill this three day indoor festival is not a sedate affair. Despite the presence of a few very classy international acts, the real charm of Eistnaflug is that it serves as a showcase for the surprisingly vibrant Icelandic rock and metal scene.

Iceland isn’t all that far away, but in terms of getting there it feels a bit remote; for me the journey was from Fife to Edinburgh, from there flying to Gatwick, from Gatwick to Reykjavik, then from the city centre by bus to a smaller airfield, where, there was another flight to the other side of the island. Then a bus journey to Neskaupstaður; the plus side of all this is of course that Iceland is stunningly beautiful.

Having missed most of day one (the buzz being that Atrum and Hamferð were among the highlights), the festival atmosphere is immediately established by the rapturous welcome for local heroes Sólstafir. With their fourth album about to be released, the band (difficult to classify but extremely atmospheric psychedelic metal with some black metal-ish elements) play an immense set that wouldn’t have been out of place in a huge arena show and utterly destroys the medium sized venue; no wonder around one in four festivalgoers are wearing a Sólstafir shirt. They prove a slightly tough act to follow for Secrets of the Moon, who are minus their usual bassist (Triptykon guitarist V. Santura stepping in) but still end the night with a razor-sharp performance of thrash-edged BM to a sadly not-quite capacity crowd; still, pretty triumphant for a Thursday night. SotM benefit from a great sound and it’s notable that throughout the festival the technical issues that seem to be endemic at these kind of events are notable by their absence. On Friday the atmosphere really steps up a gear and the afternoon starts with a blistering performance by the unfeasibly young-looking local death metal band Offerings, who blast through the mellow alcoholic torpor of the venue with aggression and enthusiasm. There is a definite blackened edge to Offerings’ material, but the energy and aggression of their performance puts them very much in the death metal camp and those who turn up are blown away. A large part of the early evening drones and sludges pleasantly by with Plastic Gods standing out from the crowd by virtue of their varying tempos and memorable tunes. Celestine too are impressive, but a change of tone seems due just as Skálmöld take to the stage to give one of the performances of the festival. From start to finish, they play a high-spirited and utterly assured show, full of powerful Viking metal, alternately melancholy and rousing, thankfully lacking both cheese and humppa-style drinking songs. With their first album already successful at home and about to be released internationally through Napalm Records, Skálmöld are in high spirits and the crowd love them; a perfect festival band. Gone Postal had the unenviable task of following them – and did a good job; their brand of death metal with blackened edges is skilful and powerful, although a little dour as a follow-up to Skálmöld.

The party mood returns with a vengeance with the appearance of the godfather/grandfather of Icelandic heavy metal, Eiríkur Hauksson (and half of Skálmöld in his band). Hauksson is a singer in the classic Bruce Dickinson/Geoff Tate mould, and for those not familiar with his greatest hits, he also sings covers of classics by Judas Priest, Metallica and other such gods. His version of ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ would be completely cheesy were it not for the immense happiness and goodwill he generates in the crowd. His voice remains impressively clean and strong throughout a strenuous hour long set. By complete contrast the opening fanfare of ‘Donald Where’s Your Trousers’(sic) – I do realise, as the singers on the intro tape seemingly don’t, that it should of course be ‘troosers’) is the only lighthearted moment of an immense and crushing performance by classy Dutch death metallers The Monolith Deathcult. The sound is huge and gut-wrenching and the band projects a very un-Dutch aura of claustrophobic intimidation. They play with breathtaking power and precision and somehow manage to utterly change the mood of the show without losing the crowd’s enthusiasm.

All I can say about Dr Spock is I don’t get it; what seemed to me an unwelcome clownish-yet-unfunny punk novelty act (complete with elephant masks, funny clothes etc) was wholly embraced by an ecstatic crowd and is apparently something of an institution in Iceland – fair enough. It’s at this point that the 24 hour daylight and cool night air with beautiful misty fjord landscapes becomes more than just a bonus. Walking out of the venue into the mass of friendly, inebriated Icelandic youngsters is a unique festival experience that should not be missed. By comparison with a British crowd the Icelandic festivalgoers are incredibly pleasant, welcoming and peaceable, though just as ready to go ballistic for a great band.

Day three has, if anything, an even more varied bill, although the first few acts (beginning at 3pm) had a tough time fighting through the hungover torpor of the crowd. Icelandic newcomers Witches impressed with some promisingly non-shit female-fronted gothic metal, but a later slot would have served them better. The same goes for Chao, who were barely visible by candlelight (until anyone opened the outside door) and played some excellent, completely non-innovative old-school black metal with passion and disdain. Another too-early highlight is Beneath, who play an energetic, charismatic set of brutal ‘what’s-not-to-like’ death metal with some anthemic blackened moments (‘Sacrificial Ritual’ standing out) and excellent musicianship. Just as the crowd started to gather, the mood changed sharply with Mammút, a very likeable but not hugely dynamic pop-rock band who seemed a little lacking in confidence in their heavy surroundings. The next standout was a great set by Momentum, an extremely tight and ambitious prog/psych metal band, alternatively soothing and riffy, their vast music perfectly capturing the festival atmosphere. Later, Brain Police played a feelgood set of stoner rock ‘n’ roll, marked by extremely good songs (not necessarily a feature of lots of good stoner bands). Brain Police are pretty well known in Iceland, but it’s hard to imagine their show not going down well anywhere – a great performance and top-class, memorable material.
Before their show, there is a certain amount of trepidation regarding Triptykon – although Tom G. is palpably excited to be in Iceland, a lot of the kids don’t seem to be all that aware of their material or heritage and their set is placed between two very popular Icelandic bands, Brain Police and Ham. Within seconds of taking the stage, all doubts concerning the band are blown away. Triptykon are visibly enjoying themselves(!) and play an immense, intense show, almost equally divided between highlights of Eparistera Daimones and classic Celtic Frost material. The band’s power and charisma (bassist Vanja Slahj is probably star of the festival for me) effortlessly win over the crowd as they play masterful versions of epoch-making metal anthems like ‘Dethroned Emperor’ and rarely does a crowd go as apeshit as Eistnaflug did for ‘Circle Of The Tyrants’. For non-Icelanders it was the perfect end to a great festival. Local rock/metal legends Ham actually brought proceedings to a spirited end, but without the benefit of nostalgia their catchy music felt a little hollow after Triptykon. All that remained was to drink beer and watch the crowd dancing at a fun but slightly desperate disco where Slayer and G’n’R rubbed shoulders with Madonna and an Icelandic-language version of Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’. Eistnaflug may seem like an out-of-the-way detour in your festival diary, but it’s a unique experience – try it if you get the chance.

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