When Norway Was Weird: Avant-Garde Metal from the 90s to the 2000s
Norway. Population 5,165,800. Home to 16,000 species of insect. Scandinavian buffer zone for the fury of the North Atlantic. Birthplace of black metal’s second wave. These, you will agree, are facts we all know and love about the country. But did you know that for roughly fifteen years, from let’s say 1991 to 2006, Norway was a hotbed of rabid experimentation within the metal genre? Sure, trve Norwegian black metal was the nation’s primary export, but there was something strange and volatile living beneath Norwegian metal’s skin all along, waiting to burst forth as would a legion of maggots from a putrescent wound.
Let us call it avant-garde metal, because that is what it has hitherto been called, and it is as apt a genre tag as you are likely to find. And yet it was not really a genre, inasmuch as no one band sounded much like the next. Nor was it a scene, although its various architects hailed from the same country. Nor was it quite a movement, despite the fact that many of said architects played in other bands together. What was it then? To describe it with any degree of coherence is such torture that one would be better off lying on the floor and sobbing… So let’s just say there was something in the water, and it made people want to make things like this:
The phrase “avant-garde metal” was coined as an umbrella term for a host of bands who were inarguably metal but otherwise impossible to classify. Most of the Norwegian avant-garde metal-makers were connected to black metal in some way; most grew out of it rather quickly, tired of its infantile shenanigans and quasi-religious dogma, yearning to create something which bespoke true individuality. So they wiped off their corpse paint, threw their spiked gauntlets in a fjord or something and got serious. Without crime, controversy or international media coverage to fuel them, they had to rely on creativity alone. The backlash from the black metal orthodoxy was either severe or silly, depending on your disposition. Death threats were issued. Dissings were dished out in album liner notes. Things were tense. After all, some folks had already been murdered and some shit had already been incinerated. But the apostates pressed on, perhaps for no other reason than to spite those who had warned them not to.
THE FIRST KISS OF WEIRDNESS
For both this writer and the the golden age of Norwegian avant-garde metal, Arcturus is the point of entry. The band burped quietly onto the board in 1991 with the My Angel 7”. (The fact that Emperor‘s Samoth played guitar in an early incarnation of the band seems significant, but I assure you it is not.) The song “My Angel” itself is so bizarre, both sonically and contextually, that it could easily usurp our attention for the remainder of this article. Happily, it shall not. It shall serve us merely to note in passing that vocalist Marius penned the lyrics in homage to his Hawaiian girlfriend. “I need you/ I love you/ You’re my angel” he growls over and over again, with such mournful swagger that it seems his entreaties have already fallen on deaf ears, or no ears at all; that indeed his love object has already repatriated to the preferable climatic conditions of her homeland. None of which has much bearing on the music itself. Owing primarily to Marius’s growls and the plodding tempo, “My Angel” sounds like a bit of lo-fi death/doom. But mastermind and founder Sverd has clearly already grown weary of all the normal tropes, so he drapes everything in spooky slasher synths and ghostly peals of guitar feedback. The effect is both immediate and jarring; from bar one, it sounds entirely incorrect. “No, no!” you will scream at your stereo, “You’re fucking doing it wrong!” And this is exactly avant-garde metal’s raison d’être: no matter the financial, critical or social consequences, to do everything wrong, and to do it in spades.
Wisely, Arcturus reconfigured its lineup and abandoned My Angel‘s bizarro doom aesthetic, and in 1996 they released their debut full-length, Aspera Hiems Symfonia. It is black metal and yet not. Blastbeats are almost entirely eschewed in favor of more progressive percussion patterns. The screeching vocals are countered by Garm’s signature monk-like chants; Tidemann’s guitar phrasings are more reminiscent of Prog, as are his solos (yes, I know, gasp!). Sverd’s lush synth orchestrations bleed all over everything, alternately invoking harsh Arctic winters and astral voyages through the ravenous bowels of Space. Detractors referred to AHS derisively as a “rock” album. One can hardly blame them—it does indeed rock. What it also does is set the industry standard for defying expectations.
But let us allow our priapic Arcturus fangirlism to wane for the moment as we shine a light on what some other nascent weirdos were up to in the Norwegian avant-garde’s infancy. Kids, it is time to talk about Ved Buens Ende. The name is a reference to a mythical rainbow or something. Some dudes from Aura Noir and Dødheimsgard were in the band, yeah, sure, whatever. The term “jazz” often comes up in discussion of VBE’s music, but I assure you nothing they ever recorded contains any “jazz”; what people mean when they employ the term “jazz” in relation to VBE is that they don’t know what kind of music it is—it isn’t black metal or doom metal or death metal or thrash metal or NWOBHmetal, so of course it must be “jazz”, right? Right, onward. The band is probably an inside joke. It’s fucking weird shit and if you do not care for it that probably means you are a sane human being. But for most fans of the Norwegian avant-garde (this writer excluded), VBE’s only full-length album Written in Waters (1995) is the be all end all of the scene: the ballsiest, zaniest, whatintheactualfuckiest piece of music ever produced within the proud nation’s borders. I won’t muck up the works by trying to describe Ved Buens Ende any further. Here, give a listen:
That same year, Beyond Dawn emerged from the deformed chrysalis of their infantile death metal abominations as a beautiful trombone-flecked moth of romantic gloom. Don’t worry, I’m not suffering a stroke—I did just type the phrase “trombone-flecked”. The album in question is Pity Love, and aside from being a benighted compendium of crestfallen dirges, it boasts a full-time trombone player in Dag Midbrød. If you’ve ever wondered if the canon of gothic doom metal could be improved upon by the addition of the trombone, Beyond Dawn is here to assure you the answer is Yes. The instrument turns out to be the perfect accompaniment to Mr. Espen Ingierd’s very Ian Curtis-like baritone. The brass and vocals are distorted mirror reflections of one another, dragging the already maudlin soundscapes into new depths of hopelessness.
Like any avant-garde metal band worth their salt, Beyond Dawn would soon abandon this signature sound in the race to push the envelope and assimilate as many disparate influences as possible. Follow-up Revelry saw Beyond Dawn drifting ever closer to the dark rock side of their sound. In retrospect, we all should have seen this coming. They had essentially been a closeted post-punk band all along. No one knew, per se, but everyone sensed it, and when Revelry came out the collective reaction was Yeah, that makes sense… The album opens with some dismal lounge rock led by a woozy trombone melody, and from there proceeds to do whatever the heck it wants. The band not only lets up on the metal, but also on the endless gloom; they haven’t fully lifted the blinds, rather parted them to let in a bit of sun. Tempos are more varied, at times driving or downright upbeat. Ingierd’s vocal delivery takes on a detached, nasal and slightly ironic aspect, as if to say “Yeah, we were never really metal, haha—deal with it.” Electronic garnishments are applied sparingly, hinting at transformations to come (Spoiler Alert: Beyond Dawn is going to drop a mostly acoustic gloom-pop album in the form of In Reverie and a not entirely un-Swans-like work of downer industrial in the form of Electric Sulking Machine.)
Meanwhile, in Kristiansand, a little band called In the Woods… was showing signs of divorcing their pagan black metal roots in favor of more expansive and emotionally epic branches. In 1995 they let their freak flag fly at half-mast on debut full-length HEart of the Ages (yes, HEart, not a typo). The album finds shrieker Jan Transit tooling around with crooning clean vocals, treating us to an off-kilter prototype for what his magnificent voice will eventually become. Around him, the song structures have become more adventurous, creeping with introspective folk or psychedelic passages, with shades of progressive rock and doom battling the ever-weakening blackmetalisms for your affection. Intriguing? Sure. Artsy? Most definitely. As you can probably hear, none of it really worked yet, but the promise of greatness was real, and it would soon be fulfilled…
NORWAY IS OFFICIALLY WEIRD, GUYS!
1997: the agreed-upon year of the “Weirding of Norway”, a charming phrase belatedly coined to pigeonhole a phenomenon that was, by that point, already way out of anyone’s control and way beyond anyone’s critical powers of deconstruction. In ’97, alongside many others, In the Woods… grew at last into their big boy pants with the release of Omnio. Aside from some very un-grim tremolo picking and exactly one scream, Omnio is not even a little bit black metal. It is a horizontal exercise in euphoric melancholy, stalking the progressive borderlands between metal and rock. It is obvious by now that these boys have a major yen for early King Crimson and Floyd (the pink one), but this is no exercise in pastiche. Omnio is an epic, cohesive, fully realized work unto itself—and it sounds like nothing else. Transit’s gothic croons are fragile and hypnotic, joined now by the operatics of auxiliary vocalist Synne Soprana. The increasingly psychedelic guitar work is lorded over here and there by gorgeous string arrangements. As a whole, the album is like a constantly shifting weather system, now crushing, now still; there is an ebb and flow to the compositions which prefigures what most people recognize as “post-metal” by at least half a decade. The only problem with Omnio was that it came out of nowhere, for seemingly no reason at all, which is actually not a problem in a musical realm where unexpected departures and advancements are the primary currency.
Whatever the Norwegian government was putting in the water, it reached critical parts per million in 1997. The same year In the Woods… was finding their freak footing, Solefald kicked down the doors, strode into the limelight and asked: What is there in all the world of music that is not black metal? With The Linear Scaffold, the band made a compelling if not altogether convincing opening argument for the answer: Nothing. Here, they set the record for number of stylistic shifts per avant-garde metal song. Black metal is the home base, but no other genre is off limits. And while the band bravely whiplashes between symphonic bombast, folky quietude, bonkers prog-rock and even some spoken word passages, it never quite feels like they’ve thought things all the way through. While Lazare’s ear for Baroque vocal melodies will dominate future records, his delivery here is thin; meanwhile Cornelius’s Dani Filth impersonation seems like a joke of some kind—more mockery than homage. In their zeal to push buttons and upset the status quo, Solefald hastily jammed the pieces of several different puzzles together, and the end result was—tada!—a mess.
Arcturus was busy making a mess of things as well, albeit with such conviction and aplomb that no one was able to stay mad at them for long. 1997 was the year that Arcturus decided they were just too weird for this game. They dropped black metal altogether, dropped some bad acid and embraced their inner jester.With their magnum opus and twisted manifesto, La Masquerade Infernale, Arcturus essentially torched the black metal embassy and pissed merrily upon the smoldering embers. In the words of Raoul Duke, “Jesus creeping shit!” There is no way to prepare yourself for the consequences of pressing Play on this album; nothing to do but sit dumbfounded and agog in a puddle of your own drool as Sverd & Co. violate first your ears, then your mind, and finally your soul. To put it simply, La Masquerade is music for homicidal clowns. The terms “carnival” and “cabaret” have been attached to it so often that it has all but spawned a new sub-sub-genre of metal (although one would be hard pressed to name another band which ever came within a light year of reproducing this sound—and if you say Vulture Industries I will whap you on the nose with a rolled up magazine). The only reason any of it works is that it is pulled off so unflinchingly, with such confidence, that you are left with no choice but to accept it. The sounds are chaotic and yet somehow coherent. It all seems to be a joke, but who’s in on it, who’s the butt and where on bleeding Earth is the punchline? Carnival pranks aside, LMI is a deadly serious piece of outsider art, hampered only by a sub-par production job which, in the end, has done nothing to impede its crazed legacy.
Just as Arcturus was showing signs of going dormant (in 1999 they released a remix album, of all things), Solefald suited up to question our preconceptions once more with their self-dubbed “designer black metal” assault, Neonism. Whatever The Linear Scaffold was reaching for, Neonism grasped. The Linear Scaffold was awkward and misshapen in its pubescence; Neonism was downright sexy. It was the sound of a band with too many ideas—drum & bass breakdowns, suites for piano and why not a bit of rapping to round things out?—letting them loose all at once, with the feverish abandon of a vagabond tossing off at a dogging meet. And despite the odds, it worked. Where its predecessor faltered, Neonism prevailed because Solefald had finally found that go-for-broke bravado which made Arcturus a force to be reckoned with. And they’d found a concept to unite their disparate noodlings. The Surface of Things. The decadence and decay of post-modern culture. The constant shallowness which, as Coil warns us, leads to evil. Neonism is elevated beyond mere stylistic experimentation by an extra dimension which comes from the lyrics—a literary dimension, where poetry gives way to cutting social critique, where philosophical musings converge to a sharp, piercing point. It all adds up to a fermented soup of NOWness, complete with cameos by Tom Cruise and Agent Dale Cooper…
“Gaia sips the drink of artificial red
Carefully served by a fluorescent sky
She swallows the light
Only to throw up shadows minutes later
On a broken public toilet”
Contemporaneously, In the Woods… added a final notch to their bedpost. As odd as Omnio might have seemed in ’97, it wouldn’t hold a candle to the oddities that were to erupt from the Woods circa 1999… It has been noted by many that the phrase Strange in Stereo is a precise advertisement for what you will find on the album with that name. This thing literally sounds strange-in-stereo. You could say the production is merely “bad” and no one would argue. But it sounds willfully bad, as if the engineer ingested some psychotropic substance before firing up his console, with the express purpose of recording and mixing the album incorrectly. Listening is like taking a bad trip into the sad, stupid abyss of your Self. About half of the album is composed of monumentally sorrowful songs that would not sound out of place on Omnio if they weren’t so drenched in morbid psychedelia. The other half is comprised of eerie explorations into goth, outsider Americana and dungeon jazz; a miasma of livid purples, reds and blues enveloped by a sort of warm, moist, quivering blackness. All of which is to say that there is something ineffably sensual about Strange in Stereo. Throw it on the next time you feel inclined to copulate by candlelight—see what happens.
WE ARE GOING TO NEED A BIGGER KITCHEN
Not to miss out on the party, Dødheimsgard (previously a pretty standard second wave black metal outfit) went off the rails at last in 1999 with the disaster that is 666 International. The Satanic Art EP had already showed signs that something was amiss, with its progressive song structures and pepperings of virtuoso violin, but…whereas Satanic Art is that strange dude in the corner office who doesn’t speak to anyone, 666 International is that same dude showing up to the office with a semi-automatic assault rifle and making it known that he is very, very unhappy with his benefits package. And although 666 International is odd, arguably attempting to out-weird its predecessors in the avant-garde (blue corpse-paint, sped-up drum recordings, stream-of-consciousness lyrics), it never quite clicks. It is aimless and dense and a bit of a chore to sit through all at once. It does not sound convinced of its own madness. As if DHG crashed the avant-garde party for no better reason than that their stocks in the tr00 market were plummeting and they had nothing better to do that year. Mastermind Yusaf Parvez (also of Ved Buens Ende) would even go on to denounce this album as an artistic misstep and attempt to right the wrong by releasing the relatively regular-sounding Supervillain Outcast.
Not to be out-weirded by their brethren in DHG, Fleurety released this the following year:
Yes, indeed. The cover art for Department of Apocalyptic Affairs is a pretty accurate indication of the music you’ll find inside: a tongue-in-cheek stylistic chop-job of such bonkers proportions that all of their peers would have to concede defeat. There’s something here for everyone—or possibly no one. Metal, rock, industrial, Prog, trip-hop, lounge, it’s all here folks, and all twisted lovingly out of any recognizable form. Aside from the standard metal instrumentation, you’ll also hear some jazzy female vocals, a healthy dose of saxophone and all manner of electronic manipulation. While each song is more or less stylistically concise, from one track to the next you will be forgiven for thinking you have mistakenly popped in a Various Artists sampler CD. This is because, although traditionally monogamous, Fleurety opened up the marriage and invited a veritable Who’s Who of Norwegian avant-garde metal into the studio: Einar Sjursø of Beyond Dawn, Carl-Michael Eide of Ved Buens Ende, practically everyone who has ever played in Arcturus, and even Maniac of Mayhem (who did something a little weird that same year on Grand Declaration of War—for which I don’t think he’s been forgiven…). Department of Apocalyptic Affairs is pure kitsch. It takes the “whatever” ethos of likeminded compatriots and introduces it to the post-modern age. Perhaps it was too weird even for its makers, for afterward Fleurety would go dormant for many years and then return to releasing things that were recognizably black metal.
THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD/I WILL SHUT UP AND GO TO HELL
The new millennium is upon us and the golden age of Norwegian avant-garde metal is winding down—can you feel it? Arcturus has been on hiatus for too long. The silence of Fleurety and DHG will go on for another decade, more or less. In the Woods… has inexplicably called it quits, hot on the tail of a new album announcement. Ved Buens Ende hasn’t done shit in ages and anyone who believes they will rectify this is a fool. Beyond Dawn has gotten into whatever Kool-Aid Radiohead was drinking and now they think they’re an electropop band. It seems like Solefald alone has continued to release stellar albums (2001’s Pills Against the Ageless Ills and 2003’s In Harmonia Universali). But even Cornelius and Lazare are not infallible, as they will fall prey to the ill-counseled desire to go off on a two-album viking metal tangent…
Is there any hope?
A little, but not much. When Arcturus finally returned, they garnered a certain amount of obligatory praise for the half-hearted Sham Mirrors, although the bitter truth is that they should have stayed gone, because Garm’s heart was not in it anymore and nobody needs a full album of Simen Hestnaes caterwauling half in pitch about Outer Space (see: Sideshow Symphonies). In the Woods… delivered a double live album of their final performance, covering pretty much everything they ever recorded, and then kindly fucked off. We were left with the rumor of a Ved Buens Ende reunion which refused to die, then morphed into news that the band was officially kaput, at which point founding partner Czral absconded with everything he had written and formed Virus, whose debut album Carheart rotted in limbo for an excruciating number of years before finally dropping on Jester Records. What Virus ultimately gave us was not the Written in Waters Part 2 that we had been stupid enough to wait around for . . . Of course, Carheart was strange—although by then we’d been beaten about the head with so many oddities that “strange” was a highly relative term. It was almost as if strange was the new normal in Norwegian metal, and so Carheart went down like a cool iced tea on a humid summer day. It ruffled no feathers; it blew no minds. Give a listen, and if your feathers are ruffled or you mind blown then you have obviously not listened to or even skimmed any of the other samples in this article and you should bow your head in shame:
In retrospect, the fan and artist frustration surrounding the birth of Carheart aptly reflects an ebb in the momentum of Norwegian avant-garde metal as a whole. Which is not to say that nothing worthwhile was produced afterward–merely that the center had fallen away. Virus and other veterans would go on to release some pretty fantastic albums, which you should pursue if you’re still feeling kinky. And newcomers like Manes (previously a pretty standard second wave black metal outfit) would put some fresh wind in the sales (Vilosophe, 2003) before mysteriously petering out (How the World Came to an End, 2007).
It is now 2015 and pretty much nothing since Vilosophe has made any waves. Manes broke up. Or didn’t. Who knows with these shifty Norwegians? The old Manes was revived with the new name Manii and then the new Manes was revived as Manes again. So now I guess they exist simultaneously but should not under any circumstances meet unless, like matter and anti-matter, they should annihilate one another in a terrifying explosion. (You figure it out.) What else? Virus seems to be dormant. DHG and Fleurety quietly continue their legacy of irrelevant backpedalling. Arcturus, Garmless to this day, won’t stop releasing albums that don’t sound like Aspera or La Masquerade. Solefald recovered from their delusions of Amon Amarth pretty nicely with Norrøn Livskunst, only to follow up with a pair of releases that are so goofy I cannot tell whether these guys are taking the piss or they just don’t know what’s cool anymore. Beyond Dawn is taking the big dirt nap. There are rumors of an In the Woods… reunion, but without the inimitable Jan Transit on vocals should anyone really care?
Will Norway ever see a resurgence of the mad genius that plagued its metal underground throughout the ’90s? Doubtful. Lightning never strikes the same spot twice. It is up to the rest of the world now to either drive the radical mutation of metal music or rest on their laurels. Norway left us a legacy of punk-ass kids with mental problems and their friends and colleagues who ran wild with the resulting cultural exposure. For an oh so brief moment nothing was forbidden and nothing was incorrect. That moment was pure alchemy. It is the future now, and that moment is gone.
(Oh, and if you are sitting there thinking that I have snubbed Ulver by not even mentioning them once...well… I just did.)