“This song’s about wolves”, explains Jøtnarr mainman Chris laconically, before launching into ‘Hernswolf’, a short sharp example of the UK band’s punk-infused black metal. It’s perhaps not difficult to understand why Jøtnarr take inspiration from Norweigan mythology rather than that of their home, given that the band are from Essex. Despite this, when someone in the crowd shouts “Colchester!”, Chris replies “represent!” fist-bumping his chest.
That’s about it in the way of banter tonight, with the band wasting little time between songs, and just filling their half-hour set. With no bass and two Telecasters, Jøtnarr’s sound is sure to be cold and shimmery, mixing occasional jangly clean sections with snatches of harmony – like chinks of light in the darkness – with surprisingly catchy, downtuned pull-off riffs. Playing their excellent EP ‘Burn and bury’ in full, their set is kept short but sweet – over too soon in my opinion.
Fen, a stalwart British crew mixing post-rock and folk elements with black metal, are excellent because they ‘paint’ with a full sonic palette. Unafraid to build up their set up from gentle, atmospheric beginnings, Fen are notable for the innovative work of bass-player Grungyn who uses subtle and tasteful effects to compliment their warm shimmery crescendos, as well as delivering tight, punchy lines when necessary to compensate for the lack of second guitar.
Mainman The Watcher, is just as confident singing throaty folk melodies as he is the full-bodied death growls into which he transitions effortlessly. With Grungyn working the crowd – foot on monitor, punching the air – Fen get us well worked up for the headliners. An earnest, intense and truly epic set.
Danish multi-instrumentalist and classically-trained musician Amalie Bruun, aka the main songwriter behind Myrkur, has divided a lot of listeners in the black metal scene. While her debut E.P received rave reviews for its effective mix of raw black metal aggression with intricate choral melodies heavily influenced by Scandinavian folk music, there are many who seem to have written her off before even considering her music. Some elitist types begrudge that fact that she made her name as a producer and writer, rather than by touring the underground circuit: Amalie was even involved with – *shock horror* – pop-influenced artists such as Ex Cops. A few supposedly still can’t get over the fact that women can front black metal acts, and have targeted Bruun with vitriolic body-shaming comments. But anyway, that’s a whole post in itself.
The question is, can Myrkur cut it live? The answer is clear: yes – gloriously. Amalie opens the show with a solo piano version of ‘Frosne Vind’ – a courtly, sentimental ballad reminiscent of the German carol ‘Ihr Kinderlein, kommet’ – the only track played tonight taken from Mrykur’s self-titled debut EP. Next her band – featuring Teloch from Mayhem none the less – emerges to play the opening track of debut full-length M (2015) ‘Skøgen Skulle Dø’. A good exemplar of Myrkur’s sound, the song builds triumphantly with a strong folk-inspired melody using high, clear vocals, which are punctuated occasionally with rasping blackened cries and pummeling riffs. It only takes this one track to prove that, not only is Amalie’s voice as impressive and versatile live as in the studio, but that she’s assembled musicians with the clout to go up against the best in the (sub)genre.
Following M through, the next track ‘Hævnen’ really showcases Amalie’s vocals – both blackened and clean – to the doubters still remaining. Swapping between two mics for different vocal styles, Amalie appears as angelic Nordic choir member one moment then Ingrid Pitt circa Countess Dracula the next.
I’ve heard a vast array of extreme vocal styles in my time – many excellent, just as many hilarious – but Amalie’s banshee shriek is among the few that are actually genuinely frightening, catching you unawares, and jolting your attention away from your beer. There’s a truly animalistic, feral quality to her growls that’s unsettling and yet – being honest – alluring. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve experienced in years of gig-going to the observation of Lovecraft’s narrator from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928): “There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other.” I swear, every time that Amalie snarls it’s like someone rubbing ice cubes up my back: a wolf cry, which knows only hunger.
Judging by the reactions around me, I’m not the only person feeling this way. There seem to be a fair few younger members in the audience, with a group behind me admitting it’s not just their first black metal gig but their first ever metal gig. This is alway encouraging, although I hope they quickly learn to shut up during the quieter moments.
I’d thought maybe Amalie would use a loop pedal to recreate the layered choral parts from the album, but she’s carrying the songs perfectly well with one vocal line this evening. While generally I find it hard to get on with very clean, operatic vocals in metal (e.g. Lacuna Coil), and I prefer some grit in there, I don’t find this an issue at all with Myrkur, as the power, confidence and personality to her vocals is so strong.
It’s no surprise that Teloch is equally impressive as Amalie, looking cool and calm throughout the show, dishing out ripping riffs, tremolo lead and mandolin-like folk melodies, with a constantly amazing tone and sense of panache.
Closing the set with an eerie cover of Bathory’s ‘A Fine Day to Die’ (the second time they’ve covered it on tour this year) that unites the crowd in an awed silence (minus the chatting youngsters again, bless them), the Underworld is left baying for an encore that never arrives. Myrkur’s sound is like nature itself: a glorious mixture of the spiritual, chaste and sacred, as well as the carnal, the cruel and the bestial – and Amalie and co have the powerful songs, the original sound and the live show to go far.